His place has been only sporadically acknowledged in the United States. Now 94, the Parisian composer is being given some attention this season by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit, who performed his Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou La Nuit étoilée on Thursday night.
Dutoit gave the work - for a tweaked ensemble without violins or violas - the gift of context, though not the one you might expect. He paired it (with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in between) with excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, lighting up connections that proved more than superficial. The obvious one is the imagery of stars - the twinkling harp/flute evocation of the sky in Romeo and Juliet's world, and the implication of Dutilleux's subtitle, The Starry Night, which inspired his work.
But by opening the Prokofiev excerpts with the fistful of dissonance in "The Montagues and Capulets," Dutoit led the ear back to the Dutilleux - which made the Prokofiev sound all the more progressive, and the Dutilleux, premiered in 1978, seem in retrospect part of a larger musical world. More poetical dialogues between the two works are left to swirl in the ear's imagination.
(Other conductors this season more literally spell out Dutilleux's lineage. The great Russian conductor Semyon Bychov connects Ravel to Dutilleux's L'Arbre des songes for violin and orchestra in a couple of weeks, and Stéphane Denève in spring pairs Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with Dutilleux's Métaboles.) The Prokofiev, even in its truncated form, was wonderful to hear - especially to marvel at the differences between Dutoit's softly sensitive take and the still-memorable edge that Riccardo Muti brought to the story. Dutoit had none of the startling exactitude, the terseness, of those encounters captured in recordings of nearly three decades ago. Muti exploited conflict. Dutoit - sincere, unfussy - just wants things to work out.
Jeremy Denk was soloist in the Liszt concerto, and though I am a tremendous fan of both player and piece, I'm not sure this was the best canvas for his personality. Sometimes it takes a bit of a thug to have any impact in the work, and Denk is no thug. Still, individuality peered through - in the pianist's impressive range of timbres, and, in spots, some well-developed expressiveness and heroism.
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ artswatch.