Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Myung-Whun Chung, Conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano
All Ravel Program:
Ma Mère L’Oye (complete ballet)
Daphnis et Chloé, Suites 1 and 2
(A video of this program, as performed in the Grand Salle du Palais de la Musique is available through the Radio France site: http://sites.radiofrance.fr/chaines/orchestres/philharmonique/concerts/concert_05012010.php)
For a good part of this reviewer’s life, it would seem, the world has been waiting for a truly great International French symphony orchestra. At mid-century, a general feeling was that the Boston Symphony under Sergei Koussevitzky and Charles Munch carried the torch for French music, ably assisted by Paul Paray in detroit, Pierre Monteux wherever he could be found, and, on disc, by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva.
Performances from France in that era tended to come out of the conservatory orchestras or private musical societies, and their quality, both technical and musical could be iffy. Even Ansermet’s orchestra in Geneva, heard live, could sound shockingly uncollected, but there was a recognition nonetheless of an authenticity there. At its best, the Suisse Romande sonority would be seen as a smooth, clear and warm-hearted alternative to the more weighty “Wagnerian” timbre of German orchestras. Indeed, to this day, Ansermet’s manner with Beethoven and Brahms is accepted and admired.
For many decades, nonetheless, French orchestras would be criticized for sounding like drafty accordions, and the word “wheezing” would appear too often for anyone’s comfort in critical pages. Charles Munch founded “L’Orchestre de Paris” in 1967 to combat this state of affairs. It never quite scaled the heights. But gradually, just as Czech and Russian ensembles became more international in style, while keeping some of their vivid wind sonorities, so, too did regional French groups.
L’Orchestre de Toulouse, under Michel Plasson, for instance, became a recognized mainstream orchestra in the 1980s, while maintaining a touch of its reedy shepherd-on-a-hill quality. And the Suisse Romande served as a fulcrum for modern French performance practice, when Charles Dutoit brought its light string tone to the Montreal Symphony in the 1980s.
despite these developments, France itself does not yet have an orchestra which plays consistently at the level of Berlin, Amsterdam or Vienna. But, as Sunday’s concert by the extremely able Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under Myung-Whun Chung, amply demonstrated, aspirations of this sort are no longer unrealistic. Radio France clearly has a winner in this orchestra, just as the BBC does in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic, and only time will demonstrate what that means.
The Ravel program which the Davies Hall audience heard on Sunday was performed with just about as much precision as one would think humanly possible. Indeed, much of Maestro Chung’s rather tight general approach reminded me of George Szell at his best. One is not accustomed to thinking of French orchestras in this way, but throughout the evening I heard not one moment of inaccurate ensemble, poor intonation or lack of focus.
From the opening moments of “Mother Goose,” it was clear that every note had been thought-through for clarity and atmosphere. Indeed, Chung managed to achieve this without any of the Boulezian “spikiness” which would detract from the music’s silky, dreamlike quality. Later, in “La Valse,” he would shame a recent SF Symphony performance by demonstrating that there is much more to be heard in its lower regions than Mère murkiness.
If one asks about the general level of the orchestra and conductor, though, a Ravel program will usually give an unsatisfactory answer. Ravel’s emotional range is fairly narrow most of the time, and his music is not given to sweeping moments for violins. Still, the exposition of “Daphnis” revealed satiny strings, perhaps only lacking ultimate velvet, and the muted sections of “Ma Mère” were otherworldly and beautiful. “The Enchanted Garden,” always a good test of the piece, was indeed enchanting, but sensuous rather than sensual. I was reminded of Toscanini’s remark about Bruno Walter: “When Walter comes to something beautiful, he melts…..I suffer!!”
Seen on the podium, Myung-Whun Chung conducts most of the time from memory, with restrained gestures and facial expressions uncannily reminiscent of Abbado. His right arm, held close to the body, often moves in circles, as Ormandy’s and Toscanini’s did. The slow rise and fall of his left hand is the uncanny thing you stare at, though. It’s steady, authoritative, slightly machine-like and impossible to resist. It’s as though Chung’s apprenticeship had been spent operating elevators in a hotel. When a fortissimo is wanted, his arms will suddenly shoot out stiffly like a stick figure. He radiates total and seemingly impassive control.
Fortunately, the music making which results is warmer than such a description would portend. Indeed, in an evening spent exploring quiet moments and perceptions, nothing could have been less chilly than Anne Sofie von Otter’s deeply felt “Shéhérazade” and its sensitive accompaniment, always best when “just under,” as Ormandy used to put it.
Sounding nearly as fresh-voiced as she did in her “Wings of Song” cd from many years ago now, Miss von Otter was both thoughtful and eager in “Asie.” You could read the meaning of the music in her facial expressions, yet she never seemed to emote solipsistically, the way Renee Fleming sometimes can. It was all about Ravel. Similarly, “La Flute Enchantée” and “L’Indifférent” balanced just the right amount of flirtatious excitement and regret for one to come away satisfied with the song cycle.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the two “Daphnis” suites played back to back, followed by “La Valse.” Over the years, I’ve noticed, conductors sometimes finish a program with “La Valse” to compensate for indifferent programming, and here was a classic example, if ever there were one. Nothing can truly follow “Daphnis” in terms of impact.
I’ve always thought the first “Daphnis” suite an oddity, not sounding really like a piece of music on its own. You keep wondering why Ravel didn’t remove the chorus from the opening music of the ballet and start there, instead of where he does. When the two suites are played back to back, you come away with the disorienting feeling of having heard the last two thirds of the ballet, minus the chorus. On its own, suite No. 2 is, of course, a beautifully crafted piece.
Sunday’s performances were totally mainstream, but tight and exciting. That allowed for a powerful but not overwhelmingly ecstatic climax at the beginning of “Daphnis,” and a propulsive and violent ending. “La Valse,” for once, came across as an intricate piece of music.
Indeed, it became clear, watching the musicians in this concert, that Ravel’s music actually means something to them, note for note. This may not have been Dudamel’s Venezuelan student ensemble twirling their double basses in Latin abandon, but American players don’t throw themselves into every note of Ravel as if it made or broke the piece. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France played as if dancing with a favorite partner.
As the evening wore on, the audience began to take notice of Magali Mosnier, the principal flute, a pretty young woman with shiny brown bangs and an active ponytail, who swayed and nearly danced through the “Pantomime” of the Second Suite.
By the conclusion of the concert, this terribly intent orchestra, standing stiffly and a bit haughtily at the beginning, could tell that it had given a wonderful performance in a city which will never turn its back on French culture. Many curtain calls followed, and Myung-Whun Chung’s repeated gestures of hand over heart belied the seemingly cool efficiency of his approach and the initial reserve of the musicians.
As the gamine Miss Mosnier took a bow with her flute, a spontaneous phalanx of audience men broke into full-throated lusty whoops. She seemed embarrassed and a bit amused, but immensely pleased. I won’t worry about her. Nor the orchestra.