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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!]

Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Former Baton of L.A. Takes NY Philharmonic for a Spin (2009.12.08)


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MP3: Claude Debussy – La Mer 2. “Jeux des vagues” from Quadromania CD1 – The Complete Orchestral Works, performed by Radio Luxemburg Orchestra under the direction of Louis de Forment

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts with the ease of a man who has world and time enough to sculpt with sound. This is no small triumph for NYC’s Avery Fisher Hall, where much can get swallowed if a conductor is not careful. The acoustics are kind to the Steinway, and dampen the coughing, but diminish a great orchestra. The higher your pitch the better off you are when playing this venue. Still, the programming was fantastic: Bartók, Ravel, Debussy. And this orchestra is one of the oldest in the world, with the most performances under its belt at 14,916.

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Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Boston’s natural and effortless modernism (2009.03.28)

charles-dutoitContinuing our Top US Orchestras 2009 series, I headed up to Boston last weekend to catch a program that bridged the gap between more traditional narrative and phrasing with elements of 20th century modernism.  Guest conducted by Swiss talent Charles Dutoit, the program of Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev made perfect sense considering his proclivity towards French and Russian 20th century music.

The Boston Symphony more than proved its chops as one of America’s top orchestras, displaying an ability to play challenging modern works in a natural and effortless fashion (something the Baltimore Symphony seems to struggle with off and on).  Too often, symphonies or orchestras feel too shoe-horned into modern works, far out of their comfort zone and never quite locking discordant, arrhytmic or irregular voices into the cohesive whole.  The BSO nimbly navigated the syncopated and dissonant aspects of the program, emulating the beauty, grace and dexterity of the finest class of danseur.

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Live Review: Breathless Whirl of the Baltimore Waltz – Ravel @ the BSO (2009.01.15)

Atypical Romantic

Atypical Romantic

The BSO, under the baton of visiting French conductor, Stéphane Denève, harnessed this whirling beast with great aplomb, taking us for a lovely hurl towards the edge of Viennese culture — as seen by the French composer. I’ve never heard a more genuinely- paced rendition.

“The impression of fantastic and fatal whirling” — this is what Maurice Ravel had to say of composing La Valse in 1919. That’s all that remained after he’d first envisioned La Valse — the tone poem — back in 1906. What intervened? Only the cataclysm of World War I.

Imagine yourself, asking a lovely partner of the opposite sex to waltz, to step — while turning — with a leg directly between your own. Chances are, you’d get drunk first. Just like you do before you go out to bump and grind. Denève offered a most drunkenly-divine slowness to start this unholy ballroom dervish. There’s a flash of percussion promise, a swish of skirt riot from the woodwinds before the strings take up. Best of all, as this turbine cranked up to full devilry, the cellos were raw and randy. There was almost a Latin-like squaring off with the two string sections as things got steamy.

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