Ranking the world's orchestras is a subjective, slightly whimsical game, relying as it does on recorded evidence. Nonetheless, there are some who play it very seriously, and among them the Orchestre National de France is highly rated.
No argument here.
Tuesday evening, the 113-member ensemble appeared at Ambassador Auditorium for the first of three concerts in the area. Under the baton of Lorin Maazel, its principal guest conductor, the orchestra revealed explosive sound and great enthusiasm in playing of remarkable surface sheen.
Maazel chose standard repertory for these appearances. The program Tuesday, however, was not unduly hackneyed, with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 ("Little Russian") as the centerpiece.
There was certainly nothing languid about Maazel's interpretation, nor any rhetorical breast-beating. His determinedly brisk approach brought the big tunes to the fore, and hurried everything else along at an excited, exciting clip.
The conductor himself proved a restless figure. Working from memory throughout the evening, Maazel struck more poses than a centerfold, from the aloof aristocrat to a jumping junior Bernstein. Dramatic cues pointed out the obvious entrances for the audience, and his choreography was limited only by the size of the podium.
Yet there was a sense of purposeful showmanship to Maazel's routines, and his musicians responded with zest. Interior balances consistently slighted the middle and lower woodwinds, and tone turned breathy in soft moments. But otherwise the orchestra's sound was brightly colored and potent, with impressive ensemble unanimity in delicate and volcanic passages alike.
With Ravel's "Tzigane," Regis Pasquier--co-principal first violinist--epitomized his orchestra's playing. Apparently a bit impatient with the lugubrious Gypsyisms of the opening cadenza, he subsequently burst into smiling, pell-mell virtuousity, furiously fiddling with obvious delight.
Maazel began with a surprisingly staid account of the "Corsaire" Overture by Berlioz, listed as "Benvenuto Cellini" in the program. Ravel's "La Valse," however, danced with a gloriously dizzy abandon that concealed an immaculately controlled ensemble effort.