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S & H International Concert Review

Saint-Saëns, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Orchestre National de France, Paris, January 8, 2004 (FC)

With Berlioz’ 200th birthday party still ringing in our heads, programming begins to remind music lovers that 2004 is the centenary of the death of Antonin Dvorak. Only 8 days into the New Year, his Cello Concerto received a particularly intense and memorable performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The excellent young French cellist, Xavier Phillips, has recently enjoyed attention-getting appearances with the National Symphony in Washington D. C. and the New York Philharmonic conducted by one of his mentors, Mstislav Rostropovitch. He was here accompanied by the Romanian conductor, Ion Marin.

Phillips has an ability to communicate with his instrument and the oft-heard Concerto took on a new immediacy and freshness. Always attentive to structure and dynamics, he let the work unfold with an attractive inevitability. He is a real talent to watch. He coaxed warm, moody sounds from his instrument, a 1710 Goffriller, whose mention in the program was a few paragraphs longer than that of its owner. The conductor, not as attentive to balances, charged along with a full head of steam and sometimes trod on the notes of the soloist.

Marin started the evening with a rousing performance of Camille Saint-Saëns‚ tuneful but rarely programmed Orient et Occident, Opus 25. An enjoyable confection, it features a fugal-like allegro finale with real spirit. This engaging work makes one wonder what other important works by this composer remain unjustly on the shelf.

Stravinsky’s 1911 concert version of the ballet Petrushka comprised the second half of the evening. Here the young and wilful Ion Marin dashed off an impetuous performance full of excitement but strikingly different from what many of his podium colleagues would have the courage to do. The composer’s own recordings of his most popular works, dating from the 1960s, set a standard of interpretation which held these up as Twentieth Century works, to be played cleanly and analytically. Very few conductors since then, Bernstein being an exception, dared to play these works with any sort of Romantic dash or fervor. You expect to hear the interplay of voices and the dazzle of his instrumental arc in the x-ray performances common in the concert hall today.

But Marin kept his eyes squarely on the big musical gestures and ripe Romantic melodies that still overlay this crowd-pleasing work. Secondary voices and the subtle balances between instruments were largely ignored in a headlong rush to paint this ballet in broad brushstrokes. Grumpy critics might miss the detail and finesse but the audience loved it. The orchestra seemed to be having a fine time too, banging and tooting away with all their might. This propulsive reading was seductive with all its energy and even the frigid night air was a bit warmer when exiting the theater.

Frank Cadenhead



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