The French Orchestra at the Proms: Myung-Whun Chung Conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

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Myung-Whun Chung. Photo: Philippe Gontier.

Prom 5:
Les offrandes oubliées 

Pascal Dusapin
Morning in Long Island (Concerto No. 1 for large orchestra)
(BBC co-commission with Radio France – UK Premiere)

Concerto in C major for Violin, Cello & Piano (Triple Concerto)

Frank Braley – piano
Renaud Capuçon – violin
Gautier Capuçon – cello


Prom 6:
Oberon – overture 

Concerto in A minor for Violin and Cello (Double Concerto)

The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps)

Renaud Capuçon – violin
Gautier Capuçon – cello

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung – conductor

Whee! Paree. A general moaning arose from music reviewers, starting around forty years ago, about French orchestras. They no longer sounded French. No more pinched oboes being played through the nose. No more horns sounding as if they were warbling underwater or inbred with the saxophone clan. No more lean, on-the-dot precision in the strings. As they lamented this loss, the same bemoaners forgot that they once carped about the very sound that was fading away. Uncharacteristically, the French were listening.

They abandoned their debonair attitude and worked hard, unlike Italy, to vie with the best orchestras in the world. In practice this comes down to competing with Germany and Austria, a dispiriting thought to begin with. Famous international conductors on the order of Bernstein, Solti, and Karajan jetted in, and amid a confusing shuffle of names, the various ensembles — Orchestre National this and Orchestre de France that — shaped up. The oboes stopped sounding nasal; the horn surfaced from the deep end of the pool. But the result was not a single orchestra to rival the world’s best; what was achieved was both un-French and unspectacular.

Therefore it was thrilling to encounter a body of musicians who couldn’t be more French without tossing snails into the audience. Visiting the Proms for two concerts was the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (I wish they had retained the old, colorful term “radiodiffusion”), which is a blend of Right and Left Bank: svelte, glittering, sharp-edged, plush, raffish, and delectable. When playing “their” music (meaning French and Russian, or anything hyper-modern), all comparisons to German and Austrian orchestras are banished. The OPRF sounds only like itself, although the regional orchestras of Toulouse and Lyon that I have heard are promoting the same sound.

My delight in discovering what this orchestra could do came about slowly. Their first Prom, stingily timed at just an hour and ten minutes of music, was haphazard.  The opening work by Messiaen, Offrandes oubliées (Forgotten Offerings) is short, conservative, and very early. Eleven minutes mostly devoted to a sustained slow-motion line in the strings displays little of what Messiaen is about, except a generalized devotion, spiced here and there with a piquant harmony or a babbling intrusion of woodwinds. The next work, Morning in Long Island, shouldn’t have its risible title held against it (I once considered writing Twilight in Passaic), but the composer, Pascal Dusapin, was hardly more daring than Messiaen in his fledgling phase.

This was intentional. Progressive composers have been regressive for decades now, and Dusapin’s ethereal string line and chugging jazzy conclusion, suggestive of Ives on the one hand and Milhaud on the other, is deliberately audience-friendly. Although a leading figure in France (is Boulez too old to roll his eyes?), Dusapin was unknown to me, so I have no right to a strong reaction, not that a morning in Long Island — the music or the real thing — induces one. Anyway, it was clear that the two opening works were preludes to a smashing main event, the magisterial Martha Argerich appearing with two of her favorite musical partners, the Capuçon brothers, in the Beethoven Triple Concerto.

Metaphorically, the waiters bustled to the table, the maitre d’ lifted the silver cloche, and what greeted our eyes, alas, wasn’t peacock but chicken. Argerich cancelled, as she often, capriciously, does. In her place pianist Frank Braley, perhaps without enough notice, timidly kept out of traffic. Beethoven’s work became the Two-and-a-Half Concerto. I’ve grown to respect violinist Renaud Capuçon, whose career is several leagues ahead of his younger brother’s, cellist Gautier. They form a smooth coalition, though, and know each other’s every move before it is made. Their part of the concerto went like a bomb, Braley’s like a wet fuse. If this had been the end of the story, the orchestra wouldn’t have departed London under a banner.

Happily, second time was the charm. We had the Capuçons back, in Brahms’s late Double Concerto, a work that can lumber and sigh or, if attacked with brio, summon some autumnal joy. In the past it served as a vehicle for superstars to drive, but this evening the piece wasn’t given over to Heifetz and Piatigorsky. The Capuçons are a team, not a pair of rivals. While playing they go into their own worlds, however, with big brother Renaud subtly guiding their interactions. Afterwards they rush into a fraternal embrace, but I wish the team showed more individuality as musicians, not simply for variety but because the Double Concerto is an oddball piece, in which the cello is tonally weak on its own, no match for the violin’s brilliance, while the extended chords blending both instruments together sound rather lugubrious and organ-like.

Brahms knew how to compensate, so the slow movement takes advantage of the pious sound of cello and violin in octaves with a heartfelt melody; elsewhere space is cleared for individual virtuosity as well as kicking the ball around with dueling passage-work. The Capuçons strived for brilliance overall rather than profundity — a good choice in a work that tends to the lachrymose — and yet the music works best on records, where a microphone can be pinned to the cellist’s bow-tie and he sounds like an equal partner. The Proms audience, and the Capuçons, I imagine, had more fun with the frivolous encore, Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia after Handel, which consisted of two dogs merrily chasing their tails.

Conductor Myung-Whun Chung wasn’t resting on his elbows all this time. A specialist in Messiaen, he gave a beautiful account of Offrandes, brief as it was, and a sharply contoured Beethoven Triple Concerto, motoring it through the lively parts and energetically punching out the workaday parts. He only flagged in the opener of the second Prom, shaping the first moment of Weber’s magical Oberon Overture with appealing delicacy, only to fritter away the allegro and distend the return of the big melody.

I expected better, with good reason. Chung, as brother of the acclaimed violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and therefore part of a royal family, musically, in South Korea, is a special talent. From his base in Paris, beginning as a surprise choice in 1989 to head the Opéra Bastille, Chung rose quickly to become a major recording artist, giving us the most French-sounding Damnation of Faust since Igor Markevitch’s and a recording of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to seriously rival Rostropovich’s. It’s a shame he is so little heard in America. Chung is short and dour-looking, except when he makes funny faces to amuse the musicians (an odd but endearing quirk); his beat is economical and impressively precise.

None of this prepared me for the shock of the second evening’s concluding work, Le sacre du printemps, which by now is as French as it is Russian — and not much of either, really. The work has become a pretext for flashy mayhem of the orchestral variety, all stops out. Not this time. Chung shaped a reading full of color, bite (as opposed to bludgeon), and precise care. Sitting within greeting distance of the huge woodwind complement, I could hear why Stravinsky wanted two contrabassoons instead of one, or an E-flat clarinet to squeal instead of a piccolo to whistle. Chung conducted with a jeweler’s loupe, scrutinizing every facet. The moments of full attack were scarcer than in any other reading I’ve ever heard; so much depended on riveting our attention to the composer’s still-astonishing play of colors and timbres.

Here is where the epiphany arrived: this was a French orchestra, combining rigor and glamour in an enticing shimmer. By comparison, other orchestras in this work sound like a crew unloading bricks. Chung was relaxed, using small gestures (his only odd one comes when he spreads his elbows and draws them in again, like the chicken dance), yet each gesture was aimed at whoever needed to be told where the beat was, a signal accomplishment in Le sacre, where the beat dances out of reach from one bar to the next.

The audience didn’t make a peep from beginning to end. The clichés about barbarism and yawps across the rooftops of Paris could be forgotten. The utter, mysterious originality of Stravinsky’s inspiration, never to be equaled by himself or anyone else, struck you full on. Here is one of the greatest cultural monuments. Chung made it seem so, and if you know the last slashing chord that kills the sacrificial virgin, which usually sounds like an earthquake, this time she dies by a quick venomous snakebite. Chung’s reading was just as sinuous and deadly, and it set a new standard for what a French orchestra is really about.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Stephen Margiotta August 6, 2011 @ 15:35

    Superb review. In particularly the last three paragraphs on Myung-Whun Chung’s interpretation and conducting of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I am a longstanding fan of the piece and have heard many performances (including Rattle at the Proms). I agree with the reviewer that performances are often over-blown (‘bludgeon’ as opposed to ‘bite’). The transparency and discipline of this particular performance (attributes that Stravinsky himself would have admired) reminded me of the first time I heard the piece – fresh, mysterious and, in this case, not rushed: allowing the rhythms and timbres the space they deserve.

    Thank you for a most insightful review.

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