Resoundingly refuting Rousseau's remark

Music Review

January 27, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The French have no music," Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared in the 1750s, "and cannot have any music - and if they ever have, more's the pity for them." I wonder what drugs he was taking. I also wonder what he would have said had he been able to hear Berlioz in the first half of the 19th century, Debussy in the latter. Nothing remotely pitiful there. Revolutionary, yes. And unmistakably, gloriously French.

The National Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Kennedy Center's expansive, multi-month Festival of France, celebrated the richness of French repertoire last week in three separate programs. I caught the one Friday night, which opened with reminders of Berlioz's ear-raising brilliance and Debussy's harmony-bending imagination, then focused on how Ravel built on those legacies.

Berlioz, as ahead of his time as a composer could possibly get, never ceases to amaze. He redefined musical color, turning the orchestra into a prismatic palette; he redefined melody, refusing to be confined to neat patterns or anchored to conventional chord progressions. His near-opera La Damnation de Faust reiterates these points. Leonard Slatkin led the NSO in a mostly pristine performance of three popular excerpts from this vivid work; gossamer playing by the strings made the Dance of the Sylphs particularly effective.

In Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy essentially wiped away every vestige of German musical tradition, creating a soundscape without precedent. Hearing the work on Friday - delivered simply and stylishly - provided an ideal companion to music by Ravel. The sensual first movement of his super-atmospheric solo piano masterpiece Gaspard de la nuit, for example, owes everything to Debussy's Faun.

Friday's audience got to hear Gaspard in its original form, given an idiomatic, fully virtuosic account by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and also an orchestration of the three-movement score done in 1990 by composer Marius Constant.

Most people have considered Gaspard so intrinsically pianistic, and so large-scale by itself, that it couldn't, even shouldn't be orchestrated. Constant has managed to super-size it very persuasively. Slatkin clearly relished the shimmering array of colors and coaxed vibrant, often compelling playing from the NSO, especially in the Spanish-flavored Scarbo.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major received an incisive performance from Aimard, who brought plenty of snap and glitter to the outer movements, gorgeous shadings to the middle one. Aside from colorless brass, the orchestra supported the pianist's efforts stylishly.

The evening closed with one of the NSO's newly commissioned encores, Steven Stucky's Jeu de timbres, a taut, energizing work that pays homage to Ravel and gives Messiaen a nod, too. A lot happens in a short span; Slatkin and the ensemble made each minute count.

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