A polished, global sound

The Baltimore Sun

Time was when orchestras toured with lots of music from their homeland, a way of passing out proud calling cards. Then along came globalization, or at least European Unionism.

When the Orchestre National de France arrived Monday night at the Kennedy Center for a Washington Performing Arts Society presentation, it brought along its German music director and an all-German program. And when it gives two concerts this week in New York, only one French piece will make it alongside hefty German, Russian and Czech fare. Clearly no typecasting here.

Except for some unsteady moments in the brass, there was much to admire in the polish, discipline of attack and expressive commitment generated by the mostly young musicians.

Providing the spark for that vivid playing was Kurt Masur, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic now finishing up his six-year tenure at the helm of the Orchestre National.

Masur, who turns 81 in July, has faced health issues in recent years. But, other than a tremor in his hands, he seemed basically hale, and there was no question of his musical authority. Conducting from memory, he had Bruckner's epic Symphony No. 7 firmly in his grasp.

The beginning of the symphony, with the strings seeming to create threads of sound from another world, was magical. Masur did not push the Adagio's emotional envelope, but let the music reach its final peak organically. The Scherzo had terrific bite, and the episodic Finale an effective momentum and power.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 featured 26-year-old French pianist David Fray, who seemed intent on channeling Glenn Gould - using a regular chair rather than piano bench, hunching over the keys and, unless my ears deceived me, humming along.

For the most part, Fray's music-making had wonderful character, with myriad tonal shades and a strong lyrical pulse. Masur partnered seamlessly and coaxed from the orchestra an impressive mix of elegance and muscle.

A Schubert journey

Sunday's cool, damp, gray weather provided just the right mood for Schubert's song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), presented by Music in the Great Hall at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. I missed the first few minutes, but still felt as if I experienced the whole thing, thanks to the skills of seasoned bass-baritone Francois Loup and pianist Adam Mahonske.

The Wilhelm Muller poems that Schubert set to music paint a somber, bitter and just plain depressing portrait of lost love, but the cumulative effect can be richly rewarding. So it was here.

Some wear and tear on the voice did not keep Loup from communicating incisively, no where more so than in his wistful, soft-grained phrasing of Fruhlingstraum. Mahonske tellingly conveyed the wealth of nuances in the vital piano part.


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