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Arts Festival Review: French Finesse

NZ International Arts Festival Review: French Finesse

Review by Dominic Groom

French Finesse
Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Piano
Pierre-Andre Valade – Conductor
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre
Thursday 13 March

This year’s festival has not been kind to classical music. The organisers have favoured operas more notable for their non-musical elements and the a limited concert selection with a strong element of what might uncharitably be called novelty highlighted by a series of cello ensemble concerts and a Mahler symphony arranged for just a handful of players.

The NZSO concert French Finesse certainly staged the festival’s most serious content for the orchestral aficionado. The draw-card was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the flamboyant French pianist making his first appearance in New Zealand. Thibaudet comes with a fine reputation, particularly in music from his native land, and has the sort of knack for generating wide appeal that is central to achieving classical music stardom today. The NZSO was also taking this opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen, a 20th century genius best known for love of birdsong and reverential Catholicism

The concert was opened by Le tombeau resplendissant, an assured composition from the young Messiaen in four contrasting sections. The performance was well paced overall and the orchestra produced a striking unanimity of sound, albeit within a strangely uniform dynamic throughout. The simple piety of the moving final hymn was beautifully realised by the violas and cellos.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was to follow. This bright, jazzy piece is a cornerstone of the repertoire for many modern pianists, and deservedly so. It is undeniably a masterpiece, full of youthful vigour and, a broad range of technical and musical challenges. The tall and slender Thibaudet, in his late thirties and fashionably attired in Vivienne Westwood, was greeted with excitement. The first movement opened with a snap and the soloist immediately set a crackling pace, making the most of his light-fingered but highly articulate technique. This was initially exciting, but excitement was steadily replaced by a breathless feeling which let up only slightly in the Hispanic tinted and bluesy passages. The nocturne-like orchestral interludes were allowed to breathe, although the wonderful harp solo was repeatedly interrupted by unfortunate coughing.

The central Adagio Assai is the deep emotional core of the Concerto, albeit an elegant and restrained one, and begins with an extended piano solo. Thibaudet played with a beautiful limpid tone and a fine sense of line, but in a tempo I recognised as more Andante than Adagio. Once again, his playing was a little too driven for my taste and lacked some of the repose required to bring out the understated beauty of the writing. The orchestral sections seemed to find a little more space, and in the duet between Mike Austin’s cor anglais and the cascading piano I found some of the expansive calm that had been eluding me.

The final Presto was indeed fast, and here Thibaudet’s urgency shone. His technique was precise and exciting and the orchestra was equal to his demands. The audience was ecstatic, but I was nagged by a feeling that M. Thibaudet’s performance was that of a man in a hurry. Maybe I’m just too much of a romantic to fully appreciate his ice cool French performance, but I would have preferred an interpretation that gave me more time to smell the roses.

After the break was another modest Messiaen piece, a delicate miniature entitled Un Sourire (A Smile). Written late in his life for the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1991, it captures the Messiaen’s personal reflection on the essence of Mozart’s spirit. Contrasting simple lines with birdsong motives and intricate shifting harmonies, the orchestra progressed gently to a meditative close on a serene major chord.

The music of Albert Roussel always sounds intriguing on paper – a unique combination of elements from Germanic late romanticism and French impressionism with a strong neo-classical backbone and a taste for oriental colour. However, my brief encounters with it had yet to live up to my expectations. This was a rare opportunity to hear one of his mature symphonies, Symphony No. 3 in G minor, on which much of his reputation rests through an experienced and committed interpreter in Pierre-Andre Valade.

The bustling opening and stomping rhythms of the first movement were instantly arresting and it was a sweet release to hear the brass given freer rein after all the previous restraint. The Adagio was the substantial movement with lovely, long lines throughout the orchestra giving way to spiky fugato passages. There was ardent playing leading to a huge climax and then the movement dissolved via a sweet violin solo played with typical security by Vesa-Matti Leppanen. A rambunctious peasant-dance scherzo and a slick, fun finale closed out the work. These were vivacious and well executed but altogether less interesting than the first two movements. The overall impression was of an accomplished composer eager not to work beyond his technique and material. It was an enjoyable and effective piece which was well performed and well received.

With the Roussel winning some hearts and Thibaudet predictably an audience darling, it would be churlish to suggest the concert was not a success. Even the Messiaen works were met without any noticeable sniffing and grumbling. To me, however, this success was qualified by the fact that the concert could have feasibly been included in the NZSO’s subscription series. The orchestra presented another attractive programme in this festival featuring works by American minimalist John Adams and Prokofiev, about which the same could be said, and both played to small houses.

For most classical music fans, this festival has sorely lacked a marquee event – something out of the ordinary, something that generated buzz from the moment the festival programme came out, something that will be talked about during festivals to come. While it could be argued that music stalwarts are well catered for year round by orchestra, opera and ballet seasons, the festival should be a forum for the monumental, once-in-a-blue-moon works may not be possible during year-in, year-out service. The festival public rightly demands spectacles, so why not draw on what is spectacular from the classical music tradition? Festival organisers – take heed. Your public will reward you.


French Finess on the Arts Festival website
Scoop Full Coverage: New Zealand International Arts Festival 2008

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