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Shining a Light on the Familiar

July 24, 2007

Friday evening’s concert by the Russian National Orchestra at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville was filled with pleasant surprises. Programming at summer festivals tends to be conservative, seldom straying from reliably popular, crowd-pleasing repertoire.
Each of the works on the program, which consisted of Gabriel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas and Mélisande, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sergei Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet, would have fit comfortably on a "pops" concert. But because the RNO is an exceptionally fine orchestra, the surprisingly subtle interpretations offered by conductor Stéphane Denève and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet managed to illuminate even the most hackneyed of these familiar works.

The tone for the evening was established at the outset, starting with the unexpected decision to open with Fauré’s Pelléas, which begins softly with subtly wafting, extended phrases. While the composer certainly could write more catchy tunes, such phrasing, which is characteristic of much of his most sophisticated music, is considered an acquired taste, at least outside France.

It is rare to hear a performance that manages to capture the delicate sense of line required to make this music count. Although Russian orchestras are better known for their big, warm sound than for their delicacy, the refined playing of the RNO, deftly led by Denève, succeeded admirably with this work.

The conductor’s shaping of the entire suite was compelling, though his conducting favors large, flowing movements. A few small ensemble problems occurred, which more-concise gestures would have prevented. On the whole, his pacing was well-judged, but his choice of tempos was occasionally questionable, particularly his brisk traversal of the "Sicilienne," a popular movement that originated as a simple piece for cello and piano but that has been transcribed for many other instruments. Although the final movement, which portrays the death of Mélisande, is marked "molto adagio," it began at a too heavy and plodding pace. Nonetheless, it developed nicely, and the quiet, drawn-out ending was exquisite.
Subtle Approach Yields Elegant Results
Thibaudet’s reading of the Grieg concerto was perhaps the biggest revelation of the evening. I hadn’t been looking forward to this part of the program, because I have heard summer festival performances of the concerto far too many times and have come to expect the kind of heavy-handed, virtuosic renditions that exaggerate the bombastic character of this war horse.

Thibaudet’s approach, though, proved astonishingly subtle. His seemingly effortless technique allowed him to turn much of the flashy virtuosic passagework into an elegantly tossed off, transparent filigree that threw the concerto’s underlying structure into clear relief. Unfortunately, the truly dreadful acoustics of the Lincoln Theater obscured much of his most refined work. Despite all, Denève was a sympathetic partner, and the sensitive playing of the RNO helped to make the best of the situation.

The high point of the concert was a selection of scenes from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, drawn from all three of the orchestral suites that the composer published. Here, too, Denève did a fine job, though I suspect the orchestra would have given an exceptional performance regardless of who held the baton. This is clearly music that the RNO knows well, and Prokofiev’s orchestration gave full rein to the ensemble’s considerable strengths.

In most major orchestras today, the standard of wind playing has reached new heights, thanks in large part to fierce competition for the few available positions. The RNO’s winds are exceptionally fine performers. Even more impressive was the virtuosic ensemble playing of the strings, particularly the violins. Fast scale passages were rendered with a precision and attention to detail that I have rarely heard outside the world of period-instrument ensembles.

Throughout the concert, lyrical passages were given the lush, warm sound listeners expect from Russian orchestras. Many of Prokofiev’s tunes project a sense of irony that demands an imaginative, quicksilver response to the twists and turns of his angular lines — lines that the RNO navigates with intelligence and a compelling sense of quiet confidence.

John Lutterman is a cellist and musicologist. He holds a D.M.A. from SUNY Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in historical musicology from UC Davis.