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S & H International Concert Review

Prokofiev, Gubaidulina, Dukas, Strauss, Orchestre National de France, Kurt Masur, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, September 19, 2002 (FC)


The regular concert series of the Orchestre National de France began September 19 and 20, with Kurt Masur inaugurating his first season as Music Director. The program started with a familiar work in his repertory, the suite from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." It was followed by the contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's Viola Concerto with viola virtuoso Yuri Bashmet and, after the intermission, there was an interesting pairing of Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Richard Strauss’ tone poem, "Till Eulenspiegel." The Orchestre National de France, the first of the orchestras of Radio France, was somewhat neglected in recent years by its previous musical director, Charles Dutoit, and hopes are high for this new alliance.

There was a new flexibility of phrasing and a broadness of musical expression noticeable in the Prokofiev. This was in contrast with a more reserved approach Masur took when I heard him perform this work in New York. Time will tell if the new expressiveness was a feature of opening night excitement or if it signals a new, freer interpretative direction for the 76 year-old conductor. The Gubaidulina concerto was masterfully played by the reigning violist of the day, the Ukrainian Yuri Bashmet. His long hair and gaunt features, say his publicists, suggest a rock star but his demeanor suggested a rather more sinister apparition. His is clearly a master of his instrument and his soulful intensity made a considerable impact along with the involving, mournful concerto.

The second half of the concert put together two pieces with probable deliberate intent. The "Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a work that many will always associate with the Walt Disney epic, evoking images of Mickey in his outsized magician's cap. As a result, this work would, for example, never appear in a regular concert program in America but would always be relegated to the "pops" summer concerts, if it were played at all. Masur is, I think, suggesting that it deserves a place in the regular repertory as a splendid example of Dukas' talent. His interpretation was serious of purpose and underscored the inherent grandeur and brilliant orchestration of this work. The final work, the flashy Strauss tone poem, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," is another old favorite of Masur and was conducted with brio. It had the unfortunate effect of exposing weaknesses in the woodwinds, and particularly the brass, which shows that Kurt Masur has not inherited a world-class ensemble. At least not yet.

The first seasonal appearance by the orchestra and Maestro Masur, on September 18 at the studios of Radio France was for a largely invited audience and was broadcast live nationally. An odd assemblage of music, it attempted to establish the newcomer's credentials in the interpretation of French music and as well as to show off his strengths in his traditional repertory. The opening piece, a last-minute addition to the program, was in memory of the composer Yves Daniel-Lesur. His death on July 2 at the age of 93 was little noted in the press here but his brilliantly crafted and compelling 1946 symphonic poem "Andrea del Sarto" underlined the loss to the musical patrimony of France. This was followed by a dynamic reading of Bartok's "Divertimento for String Orchestra" that showed off the virtuoso strings of the orchestra to full effect. Before the intermission the violin concerto from 1985, "L'Arbre des songes" by Henri Dutilleux, was given a polished, if somewhat superficial, performance by violinist Luc HÈry. During the intermission, fans jostled for an autograph of the 86 year old composer, present in the audience, as if he were a film star. The concert ended with one of Haydn's Paris symphonies, No. 85, which bears the title "The Queen of France" and was said to be a favorite of Marie-Antoinette, hence the title. Here, Masur seemed most at home and conducted with high spirits, broad tempos and his usual rhythmic propulsion.

Frank Cadenhead



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