Zuill Bailey had always wanted to play the Dutilleux cello concerto.  

 

The popular cellist has performed some of the grandest concertos in the repertoire as well as a host of new music. But the Dutilleux piece, known for its extreme difficulty, was off limits for him as most conductors refused to program it.

 

That changed this season when Benjamin Zander offered Bailey to chance to perform the concerto with the Boston Philharmonic. Thursday night at Sanders Theatre. Bailey and the ensemble delivered a commanding performance of this infrequently performed  work.

The concerto, titled Tout un monde lointain, reflects five poems by Charles Baudelaire. It comprises a world of shimmering sounds. The music changes shape on a dime, pulsing with energy in some places and weeping in others. The harmonic writing is colorful but occasionally bristly, falling somewhere between Debussyian elegance and the Boulezian avant-garde. But there’s a warmth and humanity to Dutilleux’s style. At one point the orchestra sounds a chord built from all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale; the resulting music shimmers like light on water.

The concerto places unusual demands on the solo instrument, likely why Bailey broke a string in the middle of the first movement. After a quick fix, Bailey, Zander, and the orchestra picked up where they left off and gave a reading of fierce commitment that made the most out of Dutilleux’s occasionally sparse orchestration.  

Bailey conjured a host of sounds from the cello. His playing ranged from glassy harmonics and ghostly slides to percussive pizzicatos. Yet the cellist performed with a remarkable sense of the melodic line. His tone was cool yet singing, like a voice in the wilderness. In response, Zander coaxed playing of delicate colors. The orchestra responded sensitively to make a strong case for a work that deserves to be heard more often