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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Paris orchestras make “La Rentrée”: September 2005 (FC)


The return from French vacation, called La Rentrée has all the major Paris orchestras presenting their season opening concerts, one after the other. It is an exhilarating and tiring week for music fans and a test of sitzfleisch for critics as the orchestras, packed together cheek to jowl, strain for attention from Tuesday through Thursday, September 13 -15.

The good news straight away is that the major venue for three of the four orchestras, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, has had an acoustic make-over. Over the summer, they took up the carpet, installed parquet floors and made other adjustments, increasing the reverberation time and warming the notoriously dry acoustics.

First orchestra off the block is American conductor John Nelson’s Ensemble Orchestra de Paris, whose work at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on Tuesday was a firm indication of how well this less-than-full size orchestra has profited from his tenure. A pleasing program included a world premier of the Symphony No. 2 .by the young French composer, Régis Campo, a Mozart concerto and Richard Strauss’ witty, engaging music for the Moliere play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

The Campo work, pleasant and rhythmically apt, is not likely, however, to become part of the standard repertory. The memory that lingers is the pale, stern profile of that old lion of the piano, Aldo Ciccolini. Playing the Concerto No. 23, his immobile face could have been carved on Mount Rushmore, the only sign of life being an almost imperceptible smile when his fingers dealt with the occasional Mozartian whimsy. His shaping of a musical phrase unfolds with an inevitable perfection of a grand artist.

Would that were true of the next night’s star. Lang Lang, still in his 20s, banged his way through the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Rachmaninov, with the Orchestre de Paris at the Theater Mogador, making it more of a tawdry showpiece than it need be. Why musical director Christoph Eschenbach decided to include this work on the same program with the imposing Mahler 5th Symphony is anyone’s guess.

His familiar way of conducting - razor sharp and relentlessly bright - might not please some Mahlerites who prefer old-style lingering and plenty of heavy breathing. But the orchestra can make a mighty sound when asked and, unlike young Lang Lang, Eschenbach has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve. Grumpy critics may quibble over a few imprecise attacks and lack of detail in some ensemble passages, but the force of Eschenbach’s baton sweeps all before and leaves audiences cheering at the end.

There was no imprecision in evidence back at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on Thursday. Kurt Masur, now in his fifth year as music director of the Orchestre National de France, has honed his orchestra into a high-performance engine, perhaps the best in France. Another Fifth Symphony, this time Prokofiev’s, is the bread and butter of Masur’s repertory and was played with glorious assurance and finesse.

The likely reason Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Bolero were on the program is due to an imminent European tour by this band. Many countries are under the misapprehension that French orchestras frequently program and play French music, clearly not the case. Fearing definitive performances might be anticipated, some of the orchestra’s musicians gamely went in search of some of the original brass instruments used by orchestras in Debussy and Ravel’s time, adding interesting new sounds in these familiar works. Whether Kurt Masur is the right conductor to deliver a “French” reading of these two works is open to discussion but the works were performed with uncommon attention to detail and a minimum of perfumed languor. The Bolero, a worn cliché for many, was here a masterpiece of controlled intensity with a blazing finale.

Last Friday night was still another Fifth Symphony (Beethoven) and another Mozart 23rd by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under their music director, Myung-Wung Chung. Your surfeited reporter, however, did not budge for that. Maybe another time.


Frank Cadenhead


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)