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French Soirée de Musique

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Dusapin, Apex et al., Lyon NO / Krivine & Robertson (oop?)
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Ravel, Piano Concerto, Li / BPh / Ozawa
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Ravel, Piano Concerto, Zimerman/ ClevO/ Boulez
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Berlioz, Sym.Fantastique, C.Munch / BSO
Thanks again to guest critic Robert R. Reilly , my ears in Washington, for contributing this review of the NSO's performance on Friday night.

The National Symphony Orchestra offered an all-French evening (1/23/09) that turned out to be even more French than I had anticipated. Thanks to my confusion concerning the time of the concert (8PM instead of 7), I arrived at the Kennedy Center more than an hour early. My reward was a performance of the Ravel String Quartet, which took place in the lobby as part of the free Millennium Stage presentations. The four contributing musicians are not a name string quartet, but they played like one. They gave a mesmerizing performance of this deliciously dreamy music that seems to emerge out the haze of a semi-conscious state. In the third movement, marked Tres lent, the music itself seems almost to fall asleep, so deeply lost in reverie it becomes. These four musicians, who deserve mention – Carole Tafoya Evans, violin; Susan Midkiff, violin; Nancy Thomas, viola; and Mark Evans, cello – captured Ravel’s evanescent beauty. It was a singular treat, all the more appreciated for being unexpected.

The main course was orchestral, beginning with the North American première of Pascal Dusapin’s Apex, which offered sheets of orchestral sonorities, punctuated by timpani, growing and subsiding for no apparent reason. At times, the rhythm was barely discernable, so I watched conductor Emmanuel Krivine keep time. Apex seems more of a study for a composition than a composition. It was in a constant state of becoming, yet it never became. It almost seemed to be developing into something, but then it lapsed back into becoming again. It was unencumbered by melody. I have heard some interesting, highly imaginative pieces from Dusapin, but this is not one of them. Workbench material.

The Ravel Piano Concerto in G major needs no introduction. It is one of the most delightful confections of the first half of the 20th century. It is Ravel on a lark. The NSO was on its toes and kept there by Krivine’s incisive beat. They captured the musical toy-box sound at the outset, as well as the echoes of Stravinsky and, of course, the glaring influence of George Gershwin. Pianist Yundi Li (who recorded this concerto with Berlin Philharmonic under Ozawa) played faultlessly but lacked warmth and a bit of nuance. There was little sense of play within his part. He was not on a lark. It is undoubtedly a challenge to distill the unique French blend of insouciance and sentiment, and this performance had the feel of international blandness. Overall, the performance was brut, and I would have preferred sec.

The unalloyed delight of the orchestral part of the evening was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Krivine and the NSO delivered highly alert, rhythmically alive playing that also had the merit of complete transparency in even the most complex passages of this sometimes phantasmagoric music. They caught all the excitement without a strand of hair out of place. Krivine has an excellent ear for detail, without sacrificing the big picture. The orchestra played so wonderfully well in all sections that it may be unfair to point out that the first chair wind players were particularly outstanding. But then so were the strings, the brass, the timpani, and… You see the point? C’etait le meilleur!

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