Review: Denève Leads French and Russian Music with The Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra concerts on the last weekend of October featured a fascinating match-up of old versus new, and conservative versus radical. It also was divided between French and Russian.

Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

When Stéphane Denève came to Philadelphia for his first assignments as a guest conductor in 2007, he led mainly French works. His assignments have advanced to music of all nationalities, including movie music, as he has spent multiple weeks each year conducting subscription, tour, and summer concerts with the ensemble. Denève and the Philadelphia Orchestra recently extended his contract as Principal Guest Conductor through the 2019-2020 season. He also will become music director of the St. Louis Symphony starting in 2019.

The purely Russian part of the program was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the 46-year-old Gil Shaham as soloist. He has progressed from a child prodigy to a mature artist with his own style of showmanship. He wore a conservative black suit which contrasted with his hot pink-purple tie. His playing revealed no mannerisms but, during his silent passages, Shaham gave many rapturous glances at the orchestral musicians and at Denève, visibly reacting to the music.

The previous day, coincidentally, I saw the 1947 movie Carnegie Hall on TV, where Jascha Heifetz played this concerto with Fritz Reiner conducting. The contrast could not have been greater. Whereas Heifetz played with brilliance and incisiveness, Shaham plays smoothly and warmly. There is hardly any trace of bow scraping against strings; the sound seems to materialize in the air. It had a liquid character, with melodies flowing effortlessly. The interpretation of the concerto was traditional except for an unusual speed in the final moments. Solo passages were gloriously performed by Jeffrey Khaner, flute; Richard Woodhams, oboe; and Ricardo Morales, clarinet.

Gil Shaham. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Gil Shaham. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The new piece was Maslenitsa by Deneve’s fellow Frenchman Guillaume Connesson, inspired by a Russian Lenten festival. It has a carnival atmosphere, in a style that’s part Ravel and part Stravinsky (again, half French, half Russian) with contemporary traces of John Adams and John Williams. Connesson describes the work as “ancient Russia as dreamt by a Frenchman.” Denève performs Connesson’s works throughout the world and has recorded two CDs devoted exclusively to the composer’s music.

After intermission came an interesting pairing of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun — from 1894, based on a Symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé — and Alexander Scriabin’s 1908 The Poem of Ecstasy, which never attained anywhere near the popularity of Debussy’s music. When David Hertzberg premiered his opera The Wake World in September I noticed the link between Debussy and Scriabin which Hertzberg expounded upon.

In Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy used diaphanous sounds where the tonal center is nebulous and elusive, rather than following the formal structures employed by most classical composers. The Russian Scriabin moved to Paris and absorbed many French influences as he composed music using, like Debussy, chords that wander ambiguously with the use of whole tone scales (that is, using all the notes of a piano including white and black keys). His music doesn’t lean toward any key in particular and contains hardly any tonal resolution.

Scriabin called his music futuristic. Henry Miller described it: “Has that far-off cosmic itch… like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows.” For listeners who are much more familiar with Afternoon of a Faun, I’d call Poem of Ecstasy Debussy on steroids because it uses a huge orchestra that included an organ and extra French horns and trumpets who filed in just for this final piece. In total, eight horns and five trumpets. It is most impactful when Scriabin suddenly abandons his almost-dissonant meanderings and provides a loud C-major chord at the end. Denève led a performance that was as fine as I’ve ever heard; Nézet-Séguin could not have done better.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Philadelphia Orchestra with Stéphane Denève – Conductor and Gil Shaham – Violin performed October 27-28, 2017 at Verizon Hall at The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia PA. Tickets to future concerts can be ordered online.


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