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MUSIC REVIEW : L'Orchestre National: From Paris With Finesse


COSTA MESA — Once upon a time, not that long ago, orchestras had faces. They didn't all sound more or less the same.


The differences had a lot to do with national proclivities of style and taste, not to mention uniformity of personnel, schools and techniques. Now, as the world shrinks, as people move and boundaries collapse, the language of music is becoming even more universal than we expected.

A Beethoven symphony in Moscow needn't be all that different, these days, from a Beethoven symphony in Minneapolis or Munich or Milan. And, significantly, it may be conducted by the same maestro in all four places.

Still, some things change less than others. At least, some things change less quickly.

Take, for grateful example, the Orchestre National de France, which came into existence 60 years ago as L'Orchestre National de Radiodiffusion Francaise. We used to regard it as a typically French orchestra; that is, an orchestra more notable for finesse than force.

It never was a dazzling virtuoso instrument, and its special timbre--transparent strings, nasal winds, lean brass--wasn't always admired in the Germanic repertory. But, if one switched on the radio or played drop-the-needle guessing games, no one was likely to confuse this orchestra with the Chicago Symphony or the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. When it first visited America in 1948, the Orchestre de France played mostly French music. Now, returning for its ninth tour, the ensemble pays only token attention to its national origin in matters of repertory.

The all-too-hackneyed agenda Sunday afternoon at the Orange County Performing Arts Center began with something legitimately, delicately Gallic: Ravel's "Ma Mere l'Oye" suite, a.k.a. "Mother Goose." Then the focus turned to all-purpose sure-fire Russia, with Tchaikovsky's all-purpose sure-fire Violin Concerto followed by Mussorgsky's all-purpose sure-fire "Pictures at an Exhibition" (the latter presumably assuming a second-hand French accent through Ravel's 1922 orchestration).

But--and it is a big but--the Orchestre National de France played everything on this occasion like a recognizably French orchestra. Under Charles Dutoit, the Lausanne native who succeeded Lorin Maazel as music-director in 1991, the old-fashioned virtues of elegance and understatement overpowered any ominous threat of banality.


The revelations came at the outset. Ravel's wispy storybook evocations were delineated with a really idiomatic touch--that is, with a very light touch. The strings shimmered sensuously. The narrative punctuation was applied with wit predicated on restraint. The charm was gentle, the scale always intimate.

A similarly modest view of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto proved illuminating, if somewhat startling. Dutoit and his attentive followers refused to wallow in the inherent emotional goo, and the bona-fide Russian soloist, Vladimir Spivakov, approached the heroic bravura as if it were so much chamber music.

We certainly have heard more rousing performances of the hum-along masterpiece, and we have heard more accurate ones. Some of the orchestral lines in mid-concerto got a bit tangled, and rhythmic definition turned out to be a bit flabby. For all his energetic hopping and climactic bobbing, Spivakov found the lyrical passages more congenial than the dramatic outbursts.

Still, it was rewarding to be reminded that Tchaikovsky can respond so nicely to a enlightened introspection. The French have always been good at deflating bombast.

Under the prevailing aesthetic circumstances, the mighty "Pictures at an Exhibition" emerged more like miniatures. Dutoit ignored the vast canvas to which we have become accustomed, for better or worse, and he refused to exaggerate either grotesquerie or comic nuance. At the end, the "Great Gate of Kiev" resembled a relatively modest doorway. Still, everything was set in its proper dynamic perspective, and the ultimate pealing cadences still managed to stimulate the usual push-button cheers.

The cheers led to an encore that sustained the quasi-Russian ambience: the overture to Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila." Incidental intelligence:

* The agenda originally announced for this occasion was completely different and more demanding, too. It would have contrasted Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariane" with Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps." Perhaps someone deemed it too forbidding for fragile Orange County sensibilities.

* The house program, a veritable festival of typographical and editorial errors, claimed that Dutoit has "been named principal guest-conductor of more than 150 orchestras." He must be a very busy man.

* The Orange County Philharmonic Society, which sponsors this stimulating series, has sent renewal notices for next season to its subscribers. The mailer lists the visiting artists and ensembles, but omits any mention of repertory. Perhaps someone assumed that local audiences only care about whom they hear, not what.

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