Monday, March 8, 2010

an american in paris

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Ravelstravaganza: Mother Goose, Sheherazade, Daphnis and Chloe Suites, La Valse

This was my first time hearing a French orchestra, and as much as I love Ravel, I was not looking forward to an entire evening of his music. "It will end up all sounding the same," I kept thinking to myself, even if "the same" is the ethereal beauty of the Daphnis suites. I've never been a huge La valse fan, and I don't know Mother Goose too well.

And then, somehow, it turned out to be the best concert all season, beating out the Berlin Phil's November visit and becoming one of my favorites orchestral performances ever. It is very easy to get used to a certain orchestral sound, and at this point in my life, for better or worse, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is that sound. Every couple months I'll hear the New York Philharmonic, and once or twice a year a foreign orchestra will stop by Symphony Center. But, like deep-dish pizza, I have come to accept the CSO as my adopted, every-other-week delicacy. But, just as occasionally you need to swap out Giordano's for Grimaldi's (I actually hate Grimaldi's, but that's a different story), sometimes you need a little bit of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France to balance out your diet.

What was most amazing about the Orchestre was its incredible restraint: their fortissimo never rang out louder than the CSO's average mezzo piano. Chung brought out the lilting, shimmering quality in the Mother Goose ballet score--its hushed beauty was like a fairy tale told before bed. Towards the end, a celestial dialogue between harp and celeste resonated through the orchestra like tiny, glistening diamonds of sound. This was music as color, balanced so that texture, melody, and harmony fused together into a superb whole.

The interaction between Otter and the orchestra during Sheherezade was just about all you can ask for from a set of orchestral songs. In the opening phrases of the first song, "Asie," Chung and Otter achieved a consummate blend of winds, strings, and vocalist as the contours of Ravel's music mimicked the natural flow of the human voice. Otter occasionally let her voice become part of the orchestral fabric, stepping into the ensemble's rippling sensuality. When Otter sang, unaccompanied and unadorned, "Mais non, tu passes" in the final song, time simply stopped. It's easy to see the direct line from Ravel to Messiaen.

I can't help but make comparisons between the CSO's excellent performance of the complete Daphnis and Chloe last year (now on CSO Resound) and Friday's Orchestre suites. But as great as the CSO under Haitink was, this is how Ravel should be performed. The opening was so restrained as to be no more than a series of whispers, with winds and brass fluttering organically out of the lush strings. Chung kept the two loudest sections of the work, the War Dance and the General Dance, loud but in check, demonstrating an absolute control over the dynamics of the ensemble. Dawn, the opening of the second suite, is a miracle of orchestration in which the perfect combination of instruments don't just imitate a sunrise, but become a sunrise. Unlike many conductors who romanticize this moment, Chung didn't linger, but paced the orchestra so that each individual effect coalesced into a complete picture, like Monet's Sunrises. Though I think Matthew Dufour is worth all of his trouble, Magali Mosnier's immaculate, elegant, and breathtaking flute solo in the second suite blew his out of the water.

Chung finally went full-throttle in La valse, bringing out the brash pomposity of the music while still maintaining all of Ravel's vivid color. It was a terrific end to a terrific performance, acting as an encore unto its own. As recording technology has gradually erased regional and national differences between orchestral performance styles over the last century, it is incredibly refreshing to hear such a distinctly French sound in such distinctly French music. The CSO could learn a lot from this orchestra, although I'm not sure if I want them to; it's not like anybody goes to Giordano's to get thin crust pizza.

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