I confess I wasn’t very excited about going to hear the Orchestre National de France play a program of chestnuts on Sunday afternoon. Evidently, a lot of other music-lovers shared my sentiments, because the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was only about half-full.
Why, after all, should we want to hear the Orchestre National de France? It’s partly the presenter’s job to let us know. And indeed, Doug Wheeler, the president emeritus of Washington Performing Arts, answered in his brief and on-point remarks from the stage before the show: because the orchestra was among the first that the organization’s founder, Patrick Hayes, presented in Washington even before Washington Performing Arts came to be, and the two institutions have had a long and fruitful collaboration ever since. [Ed: The previous sentence has been corrected; it originally misstated the date of Washington Performing Arts’s founding.] Maybe knowing that would have incited a few ticket-buyers; as it was, it was a bit of too little, too late.
Why else? Because their music director, Daniele Gatti, is a heavyweight in the conducting world, and will take over the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, one of the world’s greatest ensembles, when his contract with this group ends at the end of the current season.
But we couldn’t have known some of the other reasons beforehand. For instance: because Julian Rachlin, the violin soloist in the Shostakovich first concerto, is a veritable force of nature who turned out to be the centerpiece of a searing performance of that work. And because everything the orchestra played on Sunday was pretty remarkable — even for those of us who said beforehand that we had heard Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony done so often, and done so well, that we had no desire to hear it again any time soon. (An awful lot of my job these days seems to involve defending fine performances of over-familiar works.)
Gatti is a formidable presence on the podium: visually, he conveys a sense of physical power, so that his delicacy and restraint and detail take on a kind of implicit force. He used this to full effect throughout hte afternoon, starting with an exquisite, languid, idiomatic performance of Debussy’s “Prelude to the afternoon of a faun,” in which every instrument offered precision while maintaining the soft, fluid contours of this score.
But it was the Shostakovich that was the real tour de force. Rachlin, the violinist, is a small contained firebrand of a man onstage, and he eased his way into the opening movement with playing that was almost painful in its muted restraint, over the humid, brooding chords of the orchestra. The second movement then uncurled into some of the most biting fierce Shostakovich playing I can remember hearing. And when Rachlin got going into the final cadenza, he became a wild thing, a kind of inspired mad scientist in a monologue both profound and terrifying, until the orchestra finally chimed in with ferocious clashes of regretful understanding.
I didn’t even need to fight to lower my defenses against the Tchaikovsky; Gatti and the orchestra simply leveled them, with authoritative, urbane playing. Gatti even nodded to the piece’s familiarity by leaving off conducting entirely at times, keeping himself to the most minimal of gestures even in the final movement, which nonetheless seemed informed by the Shostakovich that had preceded it: more abrasive and aggressive than a triumphant resolution.
So those of us who went to this concert were pretty happy we had gone. Now, Washington Performing Arts is looking for ways to convince you that you want to go hear Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, who arrive with Marc-André Hamelin and a slightly less overworked program on February 15th. You can get tickets at a 50% discount now.