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Yan Pascal Tortelier and the NSO find their own voices in ‘Daphnis et Chloé’

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. (Courtesy of the Artist)
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With Gianandrea Noseda overseas, kicking off his tenure as music director of the Zurich Opera House (leading a production of “Il Trovatore”), the National Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming month will be led by a string of visiting conductors. Among them Nicholas McGegan (Nov. 4-6), Juanjo Mena (Nov. 11-13), Simone Young (Nov. 18-20) and the guest for Thursday night’s and this weekend’s concerts, the French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.

A guest conductor can introduce a level of uncertainty or variability that is difficult to express or define. Some concertgoers may hesitate to give a three-night stand the same degree of commitment one invests in a long-term relationship with an ever-present music director.

This, at least, is what I gleaned from the 702 who were at the Kennedy Center Hall (capacity: 2,465) for Thursday’s program of Bizet (a grab bag of short selections from his orchestral suites for Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 play “L’Arlésienne”), Angélica Negrón (the East Coast premiere of her “En Otra Noche, en Otro Mundo”) and Ravel’s beloved 1912 symphonie chorégraphique, “Daph­nis et Chloé.”

For those with the option of catching the weekend’s repeats, do so without fear. You, and the NSO, are in good hands with Tortelier, who served as chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra until 2019.

The Bizet selections made this clear enough, allowing conductor and orchestra a chance to limber up through some of the composer’s most aggressively lovely short works. They opened with a mighty and elegantly balanced “Pastorale” and the delicate and glassy “Menuet,” both from the second suite, before dipping back to an evocative and lively “Carillon” and a slightly spikier companion “Menuet” from the first suite. A brief but beguiling “Adagietto” preceded the suite’s highlight, a bracing “Farandole” that had the tails of Tortelier’s jacket leaping along with him.

This was followed by Negrón’s “En Otra Noche, en Otro Mundo,” an NSO co-commission with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (where she is in her second season as composer-in-residence).

Inspired by a poem by the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik as well as the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s exploration of the resonance of bells, Negrón’s work emerges as an early ambassador of what we might one day come to compartmentalize as covid-era composition. Negrón has described the piece as “a very personal reflection on my own inability to be fully present in the moment, and my constant desire to escape to a different time and place.”

And Thursday night’s performance carried that air of distraction and that longing for calm. Harps, flutes and vibraphones formed dissociating patterns like cirrus clouds atop the thick colors of an organ. An Ivesian shimmer emerged around the stage, surging and shifting from one cluster of players to the next. A nervous sequence of intensifying strings sliced upward like the first breaths of a panic attack.

I do hope in the repeat performances that familiarity authorizes a bit more force in the delivery — the uncertainty at its core at times found too literal an expression.

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I will confess to some judgy preconcert qualms at seeing the stage jam-packed but the chorister seats empty. I’ve always been a sucker for the melodic and textural roles of the wordless chorus in “Daphnis et Chloé,” not to mention the spectacle. It’s quite common to perform the work sans chorus, but, sitting in the audience, I wondered whether the stubborn covidity of contemporary life played a part in the decision, and I released a little sigh into my mask.

It turns out that the cutting of the chorus is among a small handful of trims made in Tortelier’s own arrangement of “Daphnis et Chloé,” made in service of tightening the thing up a bit for the concert stage.

“Daphnis et Chloé” is one of the modern canon’s more modular works. Following its premiere as a ballet (composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to iffy results and under mounting tensions between the two), Ravel extracted material for two orchestral suites for concert performance, the second of which — featuring the famous “daybreak” of “Lever du Jour” — is most often heard today. Seldom do you get to hear this pastoral fantasy unfurl in full bloom.

The chorus serves as more than an extra layer; it’s part of the architecture and aesthetic design. If Ravel described “Daphnis” as channeling “the Greece of my dreams,” the chorus is the part of the dream for which there are no words.

Cutting the chorus also has concrete consequences. You automatically lose that transfixing “Introduction” to the second of the ballet’s three parts, a showcase of Ravel’s mastery with color and shade. And you risk taming some of its biggest thrills, like the wild, rocking crescendo of the “Danse Religieuse,” which tears the work (and in some ways, the 20th century) wide open.

I worry too much.

Ravel is, in Tortelier’s own words in past interviews, the composer closest to this conductor’s heart. This was observable in his inhabitation of the arrangement from the stage: a full-body and full-bodied understanding of Ravel’s rolling dreamscape, its colorful flights of fancy, its spellbinding chordal luminescence, its assorted cataclysms.

Tortelier and the NSO honored Ravel’s complex colors and textures (Thursday night’s “Lever du Jour” was among the brightest I’ve heard), while making room for powerfully evocative moments: Aaron Goldman’s flute solo, concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef’s searing violin lines, the spectral accents of Adriana Horne’s harp, the skill and wit of the entire woodwind section.

And I’d be remiss not to give props to percussionist Danny Villaneuva, who had curious heads craning over the balcony to watch him man the aeliophone (a.k.a. wind machine).

Most impressive was how full Tortelier’s arrangement feels. He’s able to conjure all of the grace and gravitas at the large scale, and able to cast unique light on the finer details of the piece: the diaphanous winds that course through the “Danse de Lyceion,” the dipping strings and lilting rhythms of “Danse Suppliante de Chloé,” the grotesque humor of Dorcon’s failure in classical music’s most notorious dance-off. A particularly potent moment was the near total dimming of the house lights during the “Danse Lente et Mysterieuse” to a single spotlight over Tortelier — a lone instance of dramatic staging that foregrounded the tenderness at the core of the ballet’s titanic scale.

The climactic, ecstatic finale in Pan’s grotto left Tortelier catching his breath along with the rest of us. In the end, nothing felt missing (but, perhaps, for a few hundred more listeners), and a program that began and ended in pastoral longing delivered what it set out to achieve: a great escape.

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The National Symphony Orchestra performance of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” an NSO co-commission and Bizet repeats through Oct. 30 at the Kennedy Center.