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Newer Music, Old Europe

January 31, 2003

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By George Thomson

For all the hype and advance publicity surrounding the U. S. tour of the Orchestre National de Lyon, and especially its conductor David Robertson, it was a shame to see the many empty seats in Berkeley's Hertz Hall last Friday evening. Robertson and the orchestra set themselves an ambitious undertaking, with two different programs on consecutive nights — chamber orchestra on Friday, and the whole kit et kaboodle on Saturday. With neither program loaded down with the usual sort of tour fodder, perhaps cash-strapped patrons sought to pick and choose from the two evenings' worth of hearty modernist fare. Those who sprung for Friday were well rewarded with a program that showed off a talented orchestra and an exceptional conductor to great advantage.

The 44-year-old Robertson's star is clearly rising worldwide, and he has already garnered significant critical comment locally from his appearances with the San Francisco Symphony. These have shown him to be a passionate yet rigorous leader, successful in thorny modern music as well as in Beethoven. One might regard the present tour as a piece of canny long-range planning on the part of his management — sort of a travelling audition, with an orchestra firmly under his control, for an as-yet-unspecified position.

The results were telling. The Lyon orchestra, under Robertson's direction since 2000, is an accomplished ensemble, with many younger players, and is capable of great energy and admirable precision. Only the occasional "clam" and the odd infelicity of balance (especially among the winds and brass) suggested an orchestra of less than first rank — perhaps just one a bit fatigued from touring. What they did display consistently was a sensitivity to articulation, detail, and the shaping of phrases that can only have been the product of careful and maestro-intensive rehearsal. Whether an older, prouder, or more well-established orchestra might respond so well to the kind of rehearsing this obviously took is open to question, but in this case it did seem to elicit a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Rhetoric without transition

The concert's first half paired the austere Symphonies of Wind Instruments of Igor Stravinsky (composed 1920 and revised for smaller ensemble in 1947) with the 1993 Originel for flute and ensemble of Pierre Boulez, one of the several iterations of his concept-work explosante-fixe. The peculiar, unfolding structure of the Stravinsky work, whose various sharply juxtaposed ideas are interleaved in cinematic fashion, has always had a special allure for later French composers particularly. It holds out the promise of a rhetoric without transition or summation — freedom from, as the late French composer Gérard Grisey once described German rhetoric, "having to wait until the end of the sentence to hear the verb." Boulez himself has drawn attention to this affinity in his concert programs — a memorable performance by the BBC Symphony in the late '80s of Stravinsky's Symphonies coupled with his own work Rituel comes to mind.

Whereas Rituel refers explicitly to Stravinsky's earlier work, the connections to Originel are more allusive. After a probing performance of the Symphonies, on most of whose sharp angles and taut edges you could have cut yourself, Robertson proceeded to give a long and very detailed pre-Boulez lecture, complete with musical illustrations (conducted very smartly with his back to the ensemble), seeking to give a capsule introduction to this most indescribable of composers. One could not help but recall a similar introduction, also passionate in detail and advocacy, given by Robertson before a performance of Claude Vivier's Siddharta at the San Francisco Symphony a few years ago. The tetchy reception that work received from the SF audience was due in large measure to the sheer over-determination of the talk, given with the earnestness of the kid trying to make sure you appreciate every last detail of his science project. In Berkeley on Friday, the fact that Hertz Hall doubles as the lecture hall for the Music Appreciation class was surely not lost on many of the listeners. All that was missing was the insouciant freshman's voice piping up: "Is this going to be on the quiz?"

Compounding the frustration after the fact was the ensuing performance. The lithe and mercurial solo flute part, exquisitely played by Emmanuelle Réville, was swathed in the shimmering, elaborative timbres of a small ensemble of strings and winds, with a sort of "chorus" of two flutes at either side of the stage. The effect was so compelling that the six-minute piece seemed impossibly short, and left the audience wondering whether some of that time might have been better spent hearing the piece twice.

The Germanic half

For the second half, Robertson chose Germanic repertoire, and showed himself to be just as comfortable with the verb at the end as elsewhere. It would be a mistake to conclude that, because the performance of Wagner's Siegfried-Idyll hewed so closely to the printed text, it would lack expressiveness or tenderness. On the contrary, the frankness of the interpretation, and the avoidance of an unduly opulent tone (the string complement numbered about two dozen), gave a most pleasing effect of directness and intimacy to the whole.

The concluding work, Schoenberg's early Chamber Symphony Op. 9, is designed to give a somewhat different effect. Not so much intimacy here; indeed, this performance positively reveled in the contradiction between the work's often grandiose rhetoric and its pared-down performing forces. Robertson kept the bewilderingly dense welter of contending lines in balance while never allowing Schoenberg's in-your-face energy to slacken. The gestural language here owes much to Richard Strauss, and the players responded with considerable bravado, especially the solo strings, keeping the heat on even in the more lyrical moments. At the grandiose conclusion the audience did not rise reflexively to its feet, as is more and more the fashion, but it did bring Mr. Robertson back out no fewer than five times for bows. Finally, unable to offer an encore, he invited the audience to "come on back tomorrow and [he'd] bring some more people with him." More indeed — Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was to be featured (see the review by Allan Ulrich in this issue).

(George Thomson is a conductor, violinist and violist, Director of the Virtuoso Program at San Domenico School, San Anselmo.)

©2003 George Thomson, all rights reserved