NSO’s Fragrance of France

featuring Stefan Dohr, horn; Jun Märkl, guest conductor

I must have forgotten how much I don’t like change.

I didn’t sit in my normal seat today at the concert hall. Due to some unfortunately obnoxious and inconsiderate patrons, I’d been trying to find a new season spot, and remember choosing to sit at stage level for one of the concerts this spring, instead of at the front of the balcony. It was tonight, and while it was great for the first piece, and not bad for the second, I’d rather have sat in my seat to hear the warmer, blended togetherness in the second half of the program.

I do wish I’d been able to bring some people along for this concert, as it was really a wonderful program, but the choice not to sell the upper floor of the hall proved to be a good one tonight, and the two floors that were open almost completely sold out. I also don’t know a lot of people who are available on Fridays for concerts.

A few years ago we had Radek Baborák come to play a few concertos for us, and tonight we had his fellow Berlin Philharmonic member Stefan Dohr, playing two very different concertos.

The first piece tonight was Toshio Hosokawa’s horn concerto titled Moment of Blossoming, written specifically for Dohr in 2010. The piece was a co-commission from the Berlin Philharmonic and others, and in the liner notes from Naxos (in our program this evening), the composer discusses imagery of the lotus, roots down in the mud, reaching through to the surface of the water and blossoming beautifully. The imagery he describes, and even a bit of the textures and sounds (obviously without electronics) inevitably call to mind Saariaho’s Nymphea, composed more than two decades earlier. The piece calls for all sorts of extended techniques and interesting sounds from the soloist.

In fact, many people may say that the piece is really nothing more than that, just interesting sounds. A few brass players, the soloist’s brethren, were placed at a few points throughout the auditorium and there were moments of dialogue among them. There was hardly a single thing that the average listener would consider to be a melody, as in something you would remember and hum, not a single tune, but a very interesting tapestry of sound and texture, for sure!

Next on the program was something almost as different as a concerto for the same instrument could possibly be, Mozart’s third concerto for horn, K. 447. In such contrast with the focus and stillness and atmosphere of the Hosokawa peice (where even the dedicatee and premiere performer used sheet music), Dohr performed the Mozart like he’d written it himself. As one of the most famous pieces in the repertoire, he certainly knows it, but the contrast couldn’t have been greater, with the soloist confidently coming to the fore, stepping out, as it were, from being a part of the ensemble, growing from the mud in the first piece, to really being the show-stopper in the Mozart. Does it get any better than his performance?

For real virtuosity, though, after Mozart’s piece, which is plenty acrobatic enough, Dohr returns to announce that he will play the Appel Interstellaire from Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… 

It’s quite a… stellar solo, a passage taken from the enormous French work from the early ’70s. And it actually puts us in line for the second half of the program.

The Chinese title of the program translates to ‘France and the French horn’ but I think even this is a bit inaccurate, since neither of the horn pieces were by French composers, and neither the conductor nor soloist are French, but it’s more accurate than ‘Fragrance of France.’

In any case, Messiaen started the Frenchness of the program. After the break we got Debussy’s La Mer, and Ravel’s La Valse, The Sea and then The Waltz.

Debussy’s nautical piece parallels the Hosokawa in that there’s such vivid imagery and texture. In a good performance you should feel the sun on your face, smell the sea air, feel the breeze, hear the waves lapping against the hull of the boat, all of that, as the piece undulates and swells, and Märkl’s reading was fantastic. The NSO hit the all the right marks, like the horn swells in the second movement, the thunderous passages, the sinewy flute solos, all of it lush and sensuous and captivatingly vivid.

After that, though, with the Ravel… La Valse felt like an encore. I wouldn’t call La Mer a ‘serious’ piece in the way most people use that word, but it’s encompassing, and rich and captivating and mesmerizing, so after such a sensory feast as that, the Ravel felt… playful and just… different. Don’t get me wrong; it was wonderfully performed, and the crowd did indeed go wild, as they should have.

I don’t know what exactly I would rather have heard from a French composer on the program. Certainly not another Bolero; maybe Dutilleux or Messiaen. In any case, I think I see some sort of parallel between the two works on either half of the program: the first almost act as more audiovisual and sensory, while the second of each rely on more outright melodies. Maybe?

Anyway, a concert program that features French composers isn’t too far off from where the blog will be heading in a couple of weeks, but no (more) spoilers. We also have a few weeks off from concerts, which is just as well because I’m swamped basically through until the end of May. There’s some excellent stuff to look forward to next month, though, and some very special guests of a few different types. See you soon.

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