Live Review: Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Left Hand Sweeps D.C. Symphony Goers Onto Feet (2010.04.30)

Thibaudet is certainly the man for the job to enthrall and conductor Hans Graf contained the drama in excellent precision — without which we all might have drowned under the flood of French music: Debussy, contemporary composer Guillaume Connesson, and Ravel.

Guillaume Connesson peppers his work with influence from the more daring French greats that came after Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux, blending them into an enveloping cinematic sweep of an orchestral whole. This work: The Shining One, draws inspiration from Abraham Merrit’s 1912 fantasy novel The Moon Pool.

If you read the novel, you’d know (like Connesson) that it begs to be music:

“Closer it drew and now there came to me sweet, insistent tinklings — like pizzicato on violins of glass, crystal clear; diamonds melting into sound.”

The tone color Connesson offers is 100% pure opaline glimmer. Was he successful? Yes, the audience got up to its feet.

But, did he describe accurately in music a creature of being without shape, who glides on the sea, up from the Earth’s core? Did he capture the essence of a created thing so evil it has become sweet, seductive and utterly elusive to those who try to study its mystery? Not quite. At no point did I get that thing I know Messrs. Messiaen and Dutilleux could have struck out for us: a kind of infernal joy or savoring horror.

A character observing “the Shining One” describes music “piercing the ears with a shower of tiny lances” that “made his heart beat jubilantly — and checked it dolorously.” In sum, he concludes: “So must Satan, newly fallen, still divine, have appeared.”

Thibaudet played it well, but he was no Satan in glory before me. I don’t think Connesson gave him or the orchestra quite enough. I hope I’m not out of line to suggest that he might have risked offense of ear to reap a greater reward from this material.

But perhaps he was only trying to be literary, and not literal. I will credit Connesson for not giving us a simple whitecap thrill of borrowings from Debussy and the watery stews of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is an exceptional work, especially for a pianist like Thibaudet. His mastery of three pedals was fine, keeping notes ringing for doubling effects that made you swear he cheated with the right hand. His opening cadenza, after the call of an impressive contrabassoon, was daring, almost damning, with a tremendous thundering edge. His secret sauce is modulation. After a percussive snap and a lurch, he flowed along in rich, soft convulsions then back into rocket rhythms. There was some debate on who played it better Thibaudet this year or Chris O’Riley last year. If you heard ‘em, cast your vote below.

Now for the sweet stuff… The NSO delivered a Daphnis and Chloé suite that was as good as licking icing straight from the bowl. Graf’s lead was light. He conducted close to the body, made no extraneous movements, he’d just take a wider stance. The result? A gracious sunrise vaunted by piccolo. In short, we drank deep of a treat with no fat.

[Author’s Note: Next National Symphony must hear concerts: composer John Adams conducts. John Adams: Perspectives happens May 20-22. This week, he invites Leila Josefowicz to join him onstage for his Dharma at Big Sur. We won’t miss her!]

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