For his return to the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra this week after an absence of three decades, conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier performed a impressionist program golden with finesse and elegance.
Replacing musical director Gianandrea Noseda, who launched his simultaneous tenure in the same role at the Zurich Opera with Verdi He trovatore this month Tortelier said he had spent a “wonderful week” with a more rigorous and expressive orchestra. The musicians maintained a delicate balance that allowed easily overlooked vocals to emerge through precise phrasing in selections from George Bizet’s # 1 and 2 suites. Arlesienne, the first on the East Coast of an NSO co-commission by Angélica Negrón (In otra noche, in otro mundo), and the entire “choreographic symphony” of the ballet Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel. The whole program was brought together to evoke pastoral landscapes and idylls.
Especially noteworthy is Tortelier’s deliberate use of silence, a pregnant silence that is also a form of music, causing audible gasps from some members of the audience and keeping the musicians on edge as they waited for the conductor’s signal. orchestra to blow, strike, touch, scratch or bow. their instruments. The fermats on the notes were also held just long enough to get the audience to lean in closer.
So at the opening of the concert with the Pastorale de ArlesienneIn Suite n ° 2, Tortelier prolongs the final vibrato of the cellos before the pizzicato of the upper strings ends the movement. There was a prescient clarity in the flute (Aaron Goldman) and harp (Adriana Horne) duet joined later by a saxophone (Paul Tucker) in the minuet of the same suite which, unlike other movements, is unprepared for from Bizet’s stage music to that of Alphonse Daudet. Arlesienne play and instead comes from his 1866 opera The pretty girl from Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) based on the eponymous novel by Sir Walter Scott.
“Bizet is what we call ‘bread and butter’ in English. It’s our music by nature, ”said Tortelier, speaking in French in an interview ahead of the first of three evening concerts which kicked off Thursday with a final performance on Saturday. After a little loose beginnings on the violins, the orchestra quickly regains cohesion and crisp precision with relative ease with the guest conductor. “What is important is to have an osmosis between the conductor and the orchestra,” said Tortelier, noting his similarities to “brother conductor” Noseda, who directed the BBC Philharmonic. from 2002 to 2011 in the wake of the 12 years of his French friend there. . “I think we’re pretty similar in the way we do and feel about music.”
Tortelier first conducted the ONS in 1991 – when cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was musical director – for an all-French program by Ravel and Berlioz, returning in 1993 to perform with finalists in the Leonard Rose Cello Competition. “At 75 years old, I hope I have progressed since the first time I came and that in 30 years I have matured and driven better,” said Tortelier, who was the principal conductor of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. from 2016 to 2019. “But it has to be said, the orchestra has made tremendous progress and the result is that I am spending an absolutely idyllic and wonderful week with the orchestra.”
Negrón’s touching piece, which the ONS co-commissioned with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra where she is composer in residence, is inspired by the short poem of the same name by Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik and the technique of composition en forme bell by Arvo Pärt. The harp, bells, and rattlesnakes – small high-pitched cymbals – create melancholy patterns that echo in shimmering strings that bounce from section to section above a dense organ line. A musical sunrise appeared contrasted with eerie glissandos and menacing siren-like bangs against a bass drone. “It’s also 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,” the Puerto Rican composer said of the work. “I wanted to evoke a feeling of longing and longing for something that might never happen.”
The tour de force of the evening undoubtedly came with Daphnis and Chloe (1909-1912), which is inextricably linked to Tortelier’s conductor DNA and which he describes as “the greatest score of French music”. He has performed the Impressionist masterpiece on several occasions throughout his career, including for a registration about 30 years ago with the Ulster Orchestra. In a rare treat, Tortelier presented the entire “choreographic symphony” originally commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, but rarely staged as a full ballet production since. Orchestras tend to perform Suite No. 2 as a stand-alone piece. The screenplay was adapted from an ancient Greek romance about a goatherd and a shepherdess.
Tortelier condensed or deleted certain passages he considered less effective for the orchestra. In one of his most idiosyncratic moves, he almost completely dimmed the lights in the house while Part I was closing. Slow and mysterious dance (slow and mysterious dance), after a group of pirates kidnapped Chloe. Darkness replaced a chorus of wordless voices that wouldn’t be particularly suited to COVID at the start of Part 2, when the god Pan walks towards the pirate camp to scare them away. Tortelier also removed the role of the Dorcon mountain dog in his dance with Daphnis. The comically awkward movements, which end amid orchestrated laughter, would have provided a humorous counterpoint to Daphnis’ “light and graceful” gestures.
The densely layered colors of the dreamlike composition highlighted the harp, flute and violin solos, as well as an exquisite conversation between the woodwinds. Among the many surprises, the repeated use of the wind machine, or aeliophone, so that art truly imitates life. “Do you know a more beautiful sound than a symphony orchestra, honestly? Tortelier asked. It’s a shame that only about a quarter of the hall’s 2,465 seats were filled to hear.
The National Symphony Orchestra performed under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier on October 28, 29 and 30, 2021, at the Kennedy Center. See the digital program here.