In this century, according to critical tradition, perceived history and long memories, the great French orchestras have come from North America.
For a long time, and under the lasting influences of music directors like Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch, the Boston Symphony carried that torch. In recent decades, the flame has been passed to Charles Dutoit and his aptly named Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal.
Making its first local appearance, Tuesday night, the Orchestre de Paris could not contradict that judgment. In a respectable but low-voltage performance at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, the 23-year-old, French government-sponsored symphonic ensemble from the French capital proved itself to be a good orchestra, but not one on the path to greatness.
Led with sporadic intensity by its current music director, Semyon Bychkov, the French players offered an odd but representative program consisting of Mendelssohn's First Concerto for two pianos and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. The performances were acceptable but not thrilling; one has to look forward to the ensemble's French program (Dutilleux, Poulenc, Franck) at its Orange County Performing Arts Center visit on Friday.
Bychkov--Russian by birth, American by naturalization and now 38 years of age--seemed only infrequently provoked by the dramatic activity in the colorful Tenth Symphony (he made a similar impression 10 years ago, when he conducted "Carmen" here with New York City Opera).
He projected no followable emotional scenario onto the score, nor did he hold his listeners with irresistible passion or conviction. Instead, he appeared to window-shop the musical events in this sometimes sprawling work, highlighting a few, ignoring others, mixing and matching, but mostly failing to make a unified statement.
The orchestra played spottily, achieving more cohesive climaxes as the piece approached its close, yet apparently unconvinced of the work's genuine importance. Since he proved no special advocate of the Tenth, one wonders why Bychkov programmed it at all.
Nor did he emerge a particular champion of Mendelssohn's lightweight and unmemorable Two-Piano Concerto in E (there is another, in A-flat, if anyone cares), though he showed himself and his accomplished band to be graceful accompanists.
The work itself, written when Mendelssohn was 14, is harmonically conservative and pristine, even for 1823, and neither particularly tuneful nor engaging.
As played by Katia and Marielle Labeque, it charmed but did not captivate, though the sisters, using scores, seemed to place all its thousands of notes squarely in their correct places. On apparently matching Yamaha pianos, the virtuosic Labeques matched wiry tone for wiry tone; the lack of depth in the work itself seemed reflected in the metallic sounds coming off the Ambassador stage.