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Music Review

A Night Flight to France

The Philharmonic plays a pair of the country's treasures, and one landmark of kitsch.

July 29, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Even though a great French enterprise--be it food, film or philosophy--often has the quality of dazzling complexity and singular sophistication, it still can capture the popular imagination. We may not quite grasp the intricacies of a classic Bordeaux, the subtle techniques in New Wave cinema or the actual meaning of deconstruction, but we happily drink, watch and throw around high-flown terms. And given our own culture, in which dumbing down has become a science, the continued elevation of the mind in French society is impressive.

An example of how this works--and of how even the French are far from infallible--could be found Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, where the menu was all French. The colorful conductor was Emmanuel Krivine; the impeccable pianist, Jean-Philippe Collard. The music was by Dukas, Saint-Saens and Berlioz. The Los Angeles Philharmonic expertly picked up a foreign accent.

Both "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Symphonie Fantastique" are bizarre visions in music. In Dukas' brief tone poem, inspired by a Goethe ballad, a workshop comes to life. In Berlioz's magnificent symphony, inspired by the composer's own psychedelic reveries, lovesickness turns into dreams of pastoral idyll and grotesque satanic rites.

Both are the works of unconventional and uncompromising minds that have become extraordinarily popular over the years. Berlioz's symphony still sounds radical, practically 170 years after it was written. Just about every instrument in the orchestra is used in a strikingly original and colorful manner. The vivid invitation to enter into the composer's opium-induced hallucinations is something that has never been equaled in any artistic medium.

The Dukas is so familiar to listeners reared on "Fantasia" that we must strive when we hear it to forget Mickey in his sorcerer's hat; but once done, this score, too, proves a remarkably vivid and elaborately constructed musical re-creation of a stunning hallucination.

Krivine, who made his debut with the Philharmonic last spring, once more indicated that he may be one of the most French of French conductors these days. He is fussy (but not too fussy) on the podium, and colorful. He favors busyness yet also clarity. He brings small details to life. He has a terrific ear for instrumental color and balance. He conveys a Frenchness that is both ornate and coolly elegant. He encourages playing that appears as light and airy as a souffle. The orchestra sounded superb even under the unapologetically glaring presence of amplified sound that seems to be favored this year.

Then there was Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5, also known as the "Egyptian" because it uses a Nubian melody in its slow movement. This ridiculous piece of music reveals a kitschy side of French art. Full of empty pianistic glitter, superficial ideas and obvious sequences (the technique of repeating a passage at different pitches to heighten its profile and build excitement), its presence had the single benefit of demonstrating the power of Dukas' and Berlioz's accomplishments.

It was, however, well played. Collard is a pianist with strong fingers and crisp, clear tone. And his innate good taste and musical manners made the most of this slight score. It is hard to imagine what might have held his interest in this half-hour's worth of difficult but unrewarding music.

We say that there are musicians so fine we would be glad to hear them play anything at all. This performance proved that we don't really mean it.

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