French National Orchestra has mixed showing in Chicago

April 14, 2011

Daniele Gatti led Orchestre National de France Wednesday night at Orchestra Hall.

The French National Orchestra has had a roster of some impressive music directors over the past century including Charles Munch, Lorin Maazel, Charles Dutoit and, most recently, Kurt Masur.  Still even with that impressive podium lineage Orchestre National de France still has not managed to break out of the ranks of third-tier European ensembles.

Based on the mixed-to-uninspiring performance Wednesday night at Orchestra Hall, current music director Daniele Gatti, who succeeded Masur in 2008, has some work to do to get this band up to international standards.

Now in its 76th season, the ONF, run by Radio France, delivered solid and competent playing without much corporate gleam or individual brilliance. Horns are decidedly shaky and woodwinds mostly undistinguished. Trumpets are more impressive, and strings lean and fizzingly virtuosic albeit without much luster or corporate ballast.

Surely one expects more from one of France’s leading orchestras in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun than the kind of bland, colorless traversal that opened Wednesday’s concert.  Gatti’s literal approach and lack of hazy atmosphere didn’t help nor did the solo flute’s  ungainly vibrato.

Soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet seemed determined to provide as un-French an approach as possible in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G but unfortunately failed to provide any kind of alternative in its place.

The French pianist has an assured technique and blazed through the outer movements with the requisite polish and bravura. Yet the Adagio was almost perversely offhand, his touch loud and firmly pointed, completely missing the hushed reverie of the long solo cantilena.

Gatti’s garrulous accompaniment was on the same unimaginative level and sounded underrehearsed with most of the wit and scoring details going for naught. Lauren Decker’s lovely plangent English horn solo provided a bright spot amid the gray competence.

Surprisingly, the French musicians sounded more impressive after intermission in The Rite of Spring. Any band that can tackle the daunting rhythmic and technical hurdles of Stravinsky’s icon-smashing ballet is clearly not a group of hacks, and the performance fitfully delivered the raw sonic fury and driving, rhythmic brutality.

Gatti was more successful in the frenzied moments than in the more restrained passages. Launched with ill-tuned winds in the opening bars, the performance proved decidedly short on languid atmosphere and  coloring, with   none of the sense of primeval half-formed life unspooling from the muck.

The Orchestre National de France performs in Philadelphia Friday and New York on Sunday.

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