Four Conductors in Four Nigths for Playbillarts.com

Paris, like London or Berlin, is a regular stop in any orchestra’s European tour and lucky Parisians can pick and choose among the orchestras that appear at either the Salle Pleyel or the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In one extraordinary weekend, orchestras from London, Cleveland, Caracas and Cologne played one after the other. Each concert is a test of the Dionysian and the Apollonian: how to balance the visceral, sensual attraction of the music with the thought, architecture and depth of the composition? In one long weekend in Paris, four great conductors, with four grand orchestras, gave their own readings in this never-ending discussion.

Friday night, October 23, the young people who make up the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra were the arriviste in this heady list of cities with a great orchestra tradition. In a joint appearance with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, their leader was the new media star, Gustavo Dudamel, now all of 28 years old. Although he has been appearing with this French orchestra since 2005, he had just made the international headlines a few days before with the music event of the year, his first appearance, as music director, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As a result, the concert, at the Salle Pleyel, has been sold out for some weeks and there was a clot of people at the door holding signs asking for tickets.

He began the concert with Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite No. 2 with the Philharmonique alone. The young orchestra took over for the next opus, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua by Venezuela’s Evencio Castellanos (1915-1984). The composer’s high-spirited, salsa-flavored pulse was in sync with the orchestra and the performance was warmly received. After intermission, both orchestras took to the floor, with the Venezuelans seated next to their Parisian counterparts. While it certainly did not include all the performers in each orchestra, it was a bulky group, maybe 150 or so, that packed the stage. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was, given the impromptu nature of the group on stage, less that detailed. Nobody complained. The high-testosterone Dudamel fired up the assembled forces and the audience, uncharacteristic for Paris, exploded at the end.

The next night, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra was on stage with conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, just celebrating his 80th birthday. The Philharmonia’s new principal conductor and artistic director, since 2008-2009, is, by the way, Esa Pekka Salonen, the long time conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who Dudamel has just replaced.

With Dohnányi on the podium, the orchestra sounds thick and lush with the high-calorie warmth of the true Central European tradition – almost the exact opposite of Salonen’s style. With the orchestra’s long history with this musical aristocrat, however, it’s no wonder. His origin is almost exactly the opposite of young Dudamel’s. His grandfather, the famed composer Ernest von Dohnányi, actually knew Liszt. His father and maternal uncle (the noted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer) were both murdered by the Nazi’s as dangerous intellectuals. His performance of Brahm’s Fourth and Second Symphonies (in that order) with passion, elegance and depth of understanding that spoke to his half-century of conducting experience.

The third night, also at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was the most curious. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra were in town and the dazzlingly talented orchestra showed why many consider it at the very top. Playing with a precision that recalled their golden age under George Szell, the sophisticated Parisians were agreeably stunned.

The odd program started with “Fêtes” of Debussy and the Symphonie No. 85, “La Reine,” of Haydn played with pace and spirit. It was the second half that posed a problem for some. With Welser-Möst, the “Symphony No. 5” of Shostakovich seems to have been dissected and laid on a table in its component parts. The flawless playing of the orchestra began to sound simply efficient and the symphony had little song, making the anguished third movement, the Largo, seem even longer than it is.

The fourth evening, like the two earlier at the TCE, was a rare opportunity to see a top German radio orchestra in full flight: The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. This St. Petersburg native is familiar locally as head of the Orchestre de Paris from 1989 to 1998, and I found his conducting spot on at Covent Garden’s “Don Carlo” in September. The first half of the program featured Katia and Marielle Labèque romping through the fourteen-year-old Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E. The ageless pair, who have been concertizing since my youth, look very much the same as when I first saw them and their arpeggios are just as breathtaking. After the intermission, Bychkov tackled the Alpine Symphony of Strauss with fervor and high volume and the eager orchestra responded with lyricism and (sometimes raw) passion.

Of the four conductors, the two young ones might be cause for speculation. Welser-Möst, who will be General Music Director of the Vienna State Opera next season, and Gustavo Dudamel. They seem temperamentally on different sides of the musical spectrum, one habitually cool, the other hot-blooded, In his regular seat was his new intendant next season, Dominique Meyer, now in his last year as director of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. I wondered whether Meyer, hearing again the brilliant but analytic style of his new GMD, and wondering how long the a love affair will continue with the Vienna public (the reception for the orchestra a few days later there was, according to press reports, ecstatic). Same thing for Dudamel. I remember the Bernstein early days with the New York Philharmonic and the same euphoria was also in great supply. As familiarity grows and the standard repertory is repeated, the carping will, at some point, begin.

It was Dohnányi who might linger in the memory of some this weekend. “Honorary Conductor for Life” of the Philharmonia and the Cleveland Orchestra’s first “Music Director Laureate,” his Brahms had a perfect balance between inspiration and understanding. But for now, youth and glory are grabbing the headlines.Von Dohnanyi- Christoph - Terry O-Neill-Decca.JPG redim

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