The French National Orchestra's visit to Verizon Hall this month began well with Debussy's most ambitious orchestral work, La Mer, a symbolist evocation of the sea that's a series of musical watercolors.
Playing a score that has a feeling of improvisation, the orchestra produced a flow of relaxing dream-like music. I heard sea birds circling overhead as the light and idyllic passages gave way later to brewing storms. If Debussy's composition of the sea lacks anything at all, perhaps it is only the quality of actual wetness.
Daniele Gatti, the orchestra's principal conductor since 2008, led admirably, but as the piece went on I began to feel that the overall sound was lacking an optimal Sensurround effect. Delightfully dream-weaving as the music was, the sound seemed remote and weak.
Happily, though, the sound came across much better in the following two pieces.
Ravel's debt to jazz
Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major was next, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist. Ravel has written that the music of a concerto should "be light-hearted, brilliant and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects."
And so it was —but with a deep touch. Bavouzet, considered Georg Solti's last great discovery, played this jazz-inflected piece with panache and magically fluent technique. For me, the highlight was the mid-section of the second, slow (adagio) movement, whose melody was beautifully restful and soothing.
Stravinsky's notion of spring
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring closed the evening with an expected bang. I've not heard a finer opening bassoon solo (by Philippe Hanon). In fact, the entire piece was stirring in its seething, savage, earthy Russian splendor. The deep vehemence of the strings with those vigorous and cutting and jabbing strokes coupled with liberal pounding on the tympani sustained a mesmeric suspense throughout, keeping the audience rapt with attention.
Spring for Stravinsky, of course, is never a dull moment and rarely a tranquil one. And pagan rituals can be notoriously wild. Is it possible to appreciate— as I do— The Rite of Spring for itself, and for its musical innovations and influence, and still question whether spring really is so violent? Whatever climate change may or may not have in store for the future, here in the temperate zone, at least, the season still unfolds gradually enough over a long period of three long months.
In any case, 98 years after its premiere, the Philadelphia audience for this exuberant performance rewarded the National Orchestra of France not with an angry riot but with a nearly unanimous standing ovation.