There was genuine excitement in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night. I hope that Stephane Deneve and the National Symphony Orchestra are checking each other out closely, for this young French conductor clearly should be in the running to replace Leonard Slatkin when he steps down as the NSO's music director at the end of 2008.
On paper, the program looked over-familiar, almost hackneyed, containing Rossini's "William Tell" Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor and Respighi's "Pines of Rome" -- three pieces that have been played so often that, paradoxically, you are now more likely to hear them on classical radio than in the concert hall.
But Deneve, who is the music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, made them new. And, in truth, only part of the "William Tell" Overture is really well known: the marvelous miniature cello concerto that begins the piece has no extraneous associations with "The Lone Ranger," Merrie Melodies, old Spike Jones records or any of the other purposes that its second half has been put to.
The formal construction of the overture can seem rather arbitrary, a sequence of potent melodies that have little to do with each other. Last night, the progression sounded both eternally surprising and utterly inevitable. From the serene sadness of David Hardy's cello solo through the final crash of the cymbals, Deneve and the orchestra were in full sympathy with each other.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist in the Grieg and managed to combine swooning tenderness with majestic proclamation, songful sweetness with grand virtuosic sheen. This is a rather tough piece to pull off: One doesn't want to condescend to its guileless simplicity, but puffing it up into a would-be Grand Statement can be fatal to its modest charms. Deneve and Thibaudet struck an appropriate balance.
The one unfamiliar work on the program was a new piece by the young French composer Guillaume Connesson, whose music Deneve championed on previous visits to Washington. "Une Lueur Dans l'Age Sombre" ("A Glimmer in the Age of Darkness") was inspired by a telescopic vision of distant light in deepest space and sounded rather like "The Planets" as it might have been composed by Claude Debussy and Edgard Varese. Harmonically dense yet easy to follow, abounding in eerie and arresting sonorities, alive with musical and intellectual interest, this is the finest new work for orchestra I've heard in some time, and the NSO played it with a range of instrumental colors that was nothing less than prismatic.
A brilliant and sweeping "Pines of Rome" closed the evening, complete with that haunting recording of a nightingale that Respighi made some 80 years ago and wanted to accompany any performance. Listening to it sing is rather like taking a sip of ancient wine: One reflects on all that has happened, for good and ill, since it was captured so many years ago. How strangely touching to consider that this one bird, out of all the millions upon millions that have lived and sung, has attained this curious immortality, one reaffirmed any time that "Pines of Rome" is played.
Deneve and the NSO make for a happy, exciting and mutually rewarding musical partnership, and you can hear them play together when this concert is repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8. Who knows where it all will lead?