Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Review of the Orchestre de Paris, Benefit Concert for the Mahler Library

Classical Music Column for ANG Newspapers Cue Sections
Nov. 15-16, 1999

By Cheryl North

Dateline: Paris. As I step out of my hotel room, I am surrounded by a melange of unfamiliar, nasal-sounding words. They buzz about my ears as I stroll about picturesque boulevards dotted with sidewalk cafes, colorful kiosks, and falling autumn leaves. But last Tuesday evening, after taking my seat in the understated, but nonetheless beautifully refurbished Theatre du Chatelet, I heard sounds that made me feel right at home. I was no longer in a foreign land.

The din of A's and B-flats that began to hum through the ranks of the Orchestre de Paris, were the same tuning-up sounds one hears in San Francisco, Oakland, or Performing Arts Centers in San Mateo, Walnut Creek or Fremont.

Then, as Maestro Pierre Boulez raised his arms to signal the beginning strains of the sublime Adagio from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10, I was transported into that timeless realm without national boundaries - the universal world of music. Instead of isolated groups of Frenchmen, small enclaves of English-speaking Americans, Brits, and Welshmen, or coteries of German, Hungarian, Russian, or Arabic-speaking people, all of us seated in the hall quickly became one world - a world united by a single musical language that we could readily understand. Without translation.

Boulez conducted without a baton, using instead, a right hand to shape rhythmic phrases and a mobile left , with palms turned upward at times so that his fingers reached out to encourage wood winds or brass to give a bit more, or to entice cellos to dig deeper into a melodic line. At times one hand gently patted the air to signal the brass to silence, or to quiet violins to a mere whisper of sound.

The Paris strings were, in fact, some of the most unified I've ever heard. They repeatedly tricked one's ears into perceiving a sound that seemed to be produced by a single, rather than a mass, of players. Rich organ-like textures emanated from the brass and winds and a particularly long-winded trumpet player eventually evolved his sound into a stream of ineffable sweetness.

Boulez subtly built the tension-level of Mahler's 10th to near painful proportions before easing off into its warmer, gentler passages. Ever faithful to Mahler's injunctions, the resolute Frenchman sculpted the contours of the music into a sublime totality. He achieved this magic without a visible hint of histrionics or a single frantic gesture. The piece ended with a quiet, quite philosophic serenity as Boulez controlled all parameters of its denouement. There wasn't even an audible cough to jolt the magic mood.

Then, a scene recently enacted in San Francisco, took place on the Chatelet stage. Baritone Thomas Hampson, a former Adler Fellow and a familiar presence in the Bay Area, assumed the persona of the protagonist in four of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. One of the most intelligent, well-educated singers on both concert and operatic stages today, Hampson definitively evoked the disenchantment felt by the young wanderer as he ruminates on the marriage of his sweetheart to another in Mahler's Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht. With an unfailingly resplendent tone, Hampson's spirits seemed to levitate with joy throughout the next song, Ging heut morgen ubers Feld (I walk through the fields this morning) and they darkened into anger as he sang threateningly through Ich hab' ein gluhend Messer. Following the final piece in the set, Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz, the audience applauded him through half a dozen curtain calls.

The raison d'etre for Hampson's Paris appearance on the Chatelet stage, and for the concert itself, was to raise money for the Bibliotheque musical Gustav Mahler (the Music Library of Gustav Mahler), founded and maintained by Henry-Louis de La Grange, another figure familiar to Bay Area classical music lovers. La Grange was engaged by Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony to preside over the series of lectures accompanying the Symphony's Mahler Festival in June of 1998. As a result of La Grange's impressive San Francisco efforts, a number of Bay Area classical music mavens were attracted to last week's Paris event.

Hampson returned to begin the second half of the program with a lively performance of Mahler's Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony of Padua's sermon to the fishes) from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song cycle. Thoroughly seducing his audience with the beauty of his voice and the intensity of his interpretation, Hampson proceeded on to a rousing version of Mahler's 1899 antiwar song, Revelge (replete with its fascinating percussion).

The final work of the evening seemed a bit puzzling: why should Igor Stravinsky's Petrouchka be on a program dedicated to Gustav Mahler? A closer look at the program revealed that the version chosen by Boulez was the 1911 version - the very year that Gustav Mahler died.

Then Boulez and the Orchestre de Paris showed one and all just why Stravinsky's music remains relevant to our century, a century set on its musical path by Mahler himself. Boulez' performance was one marked by cutting clarity, rich, committed sonorities, and a high level of excitement.

The audience was generously appreciative: Madame Chirac (the wife of the President of France), as well as Pierre Berge, (head of Yves St. Laurent), the French Minister of Culture, and on through the smattering of folks from the Bay Area. For a short time - because of the blessed universality of music - we were indeed, one world.

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