Conductor: Emmanuel Krivine
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major - Yundi Li
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, op. 14
Now that Washington, DC is slowly but surely getting back to somewhat normal after the phenomenal love fest that was the inauguration of our new president, Barak Obama, the National Symphony Orchestra apparently couldn't think of anything else than scheduling a fully French program as its first three performances of this new era. While I certainly appreciated the honor paid to my double heritage, especially now that I don't have any more qualms about being an American, I did find it a bit puzzling. But, hey, experiencing the Symphonie fantastique live is always a welcome treat, and combining it with a short modern piece and a barely longer and slightly older concerto was not a bad idea after all. An additional bonus was the opportunity to hear the young but already well-known pianist Yundi Li, and the visiting conductor Emmanuel Krivine.
The NSO did, however, start its first concert under the new administration with a rousing rendition of the Star-spangled banner and played it with an incredible amount of energy and gusto that more than powerfully expressed delayed but obviously deeply heart-felt patriotic fervor.
Then it was onward and forward with quite a wide range of Gallic musical works. The first one, Apex by Dusapin, was probably the least known and the most nontraditional. His musical games, both serious and fun, and the absence of linearity required the listener’s attention, but did not beat you up on the head, which is always a plus. Each instrument’s sound was clearly and gracefully defined and their occasional intermingling yielded unusual but interesting results.
After the brainy part of the evening was over, we moved on to more hedonistic oeuvres, starting with Ravel’s eclectic piano concerto. A smorgasbord of various influences ranging from Mozart to Gershwin, sprinkled with sporadic jazzy flavours, it was a ball of rhythms and energy after the ethereal mood of the previous piece. Yundi Li proved he was quite of a dexterous player, but did not look like he was really losing himself into it. He did bring some delicate romanticism to the second movement, the adagio assai, while remaining a bit away from it all.
Next came the pièce de résistance, and the symphony turned out to be quite fantastic, indeed. Composed by Berlioz after he became obsessed with the young Irish actress Harriett Smithson while watching her play Ophelia onstage, it is the imaginary diary of a hopelessly smitten young artist, a psychedelic journey whose five distinct scenes are all connected by the idée fixe, the recurring melodic motif. The Rêveries and the Scenes aux champs were bucolically poetic, and the strings gave the Bal much grace and lightness. Then the orchestra got really fired up and the last two movements were brilliantly intense; the Marche au supplice brimmed with high-voltage macabre energy and the Songe d'une nuit de Sabbat was shamelessly ghoulish. The brass showed no restraint and the orchestra was whole-heartedly supported them under the blazing baton of maestro Krivine. Once more, Berlioz's magnificent masterpiece took its more than willing audience from surrealistic dream to bone-rattling nightmare... and left us asking for more.