Music review

Hans Graf conducts Jean-Yves Thibaudet, National Symphony in Ravel, Debussy

Fleet fingers: Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's rendition of Guillaume Connesson's
Fleet fingers: Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's rendition of Guillaume Connesson's "The Shining One" was a crowd-pleaser. (Decca/kasskara)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

The National Symphony Orchestra's program this week is staking out an archetype of French music: orchestral works overflowing with musical color and timbre and, in the words of Debussy that were even cited in the program note, "what imbeciles call 'impressionism.' "

All four works on the program are French, and all four traffic heavily in lush sonorities and dense textures, presenting so much sensation that they can't help but be sensual.

Debussy's "Images" (the orchestral trilogy, not the two books of piano works of the same name) and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" are quintessential orchestral showcases. That usually refers to works that go to the extremes of the orchestra, beyond the meat-and-potatoes of strings and winds and brass: a stroke of harp, a shimmer of cymbal, the mellow birdcall of an oboe d'amore or the flatulence of a contrabassoon. In the hands of a less skilled practitioner than Debussy, it would risk degenerating into sound effects.

It certainly wasn't overly lush in the hands of Hans Graf, the conductor, who helped maintain a certain sobriety amid the heady intoxication of sound. The NSO isn't a group to lose itself, either. Its strings can swirl and ravish with the best of them, but the brass, especially at the start of "Images," sounded a little pedestrian. Even after a largely absorbing reading, there were moments when the disparate elements, fine as they were, didn't sound as if they were coming together into a whole.

I've long said that the problem can't all be the troublesome acoustic in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, since I've heard other orchestras negotiate it better, but Thursday's concert would certainly support the idea that the players suffer from being accustomed to not hearing each other well.

Debussy was followed by Ravel, separated by a contemporary piece that was also French and liberally utilized the same orchestral palette: "The Shining One," a nine-minute miniature piano concerto by Guillaume Connesson.

Connesson took many of the same colors and tools -- burbling sound effects, layers of intense activity -- and used them to create a completely different picture, heavy on the sound effects: His piece evoked a 1940s Hollywood film score from the opening, when a long-limbed melodic theme rose from the winds while the strings percolated busily all around it.

I'm not sure the film-score comparison is pejorative; indeed, it seemed to be the composer's intention. Connesson draws explicitly on a broad range of nonmusical cultural references, and "The Shining One" is named for a figure in an early sci-fi/fantasy novel by Abraham Merritt. The piece didn't linger long enough to let one figure it out, much less develop any objections to it. It zipped past, in three compressed gestures too small to be called movements, evoking the pyrotechnics and gushing melodies of Rachmaninoff more than the sophistication of Debussy. It was certainly a crowd-pleaser; the audience, roused by the fleetness of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet -- and grateful that the contemporary piece turned out to be so inoffensive and tuneful -- was enthusiastic.

Thibaudet returned after the intermission in a piece that's become something of a signature for him: Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. He played it with the NSO in 2004, and with the Philadelphia Orchestra a year ago.

Ravel compensates for the limitations of the soloist with one of his biggest, loudest works, and Graf gave full scope to its majesty and size. The brass had its finest moments of the evening in the big martial blares toward the end, each rounded out with a crisp roll of timpani. Thibaudet, for his part, has developed his reading of the opening, with its headlong flings up the keyboard, into something that almost verges on the coarse, ringing with pedal -- but he redeems himself, time and again, by modulating on a dime into pure gentleness and gentility.

After that, everyone was fully warmed up, and "Daphnis" was a radiant pleasure to end the evening.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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