Among the today's young conductors, Stéphane Denève is something of a dark horse. True, he has amassed a very distinguished discography over the past decade. His recordings of Honegger and Ravel, for example, stand as some of the finest committed to disc, yet his name has never quite created the stir that the Dudamels and Nézet-Séguins have. (One hopes that his music directorship of the St Louis Symphony beginning next year will rectify that.) Not that the comparatively circumspect profile that Denève cuts is somehow his fault— far from it. Of contemporary younger conductors, he arguably stands on top as having the most vivid sense of color, the firmest grasp of a score’s line. Skeptical Angelenos were presented with ample evidence of the French conductor’s mastery when he guest conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell

He wove a dizzying spell over the audience with a chain of Ravel waltzes: the Valses nobles et sentimentales, segueing without interruption into La Valse. His rationale for performing those two works in that manner – that they represent a history of 19th and early 20th-century Europe, from the Congress of Vienna to the Treaty of Versailles, via the medium of the waltz – would likely have been met with a fiery rebuttal by their composer. But no matter. Even the ever fastidious Ravel would have found nothing to object over Denève’s superb readings.

There is a tendency today to play French music with tapered tuttis, weak attacks, and excessively soft playing, mistakenly ascribing these as “authentically” Gallic. (The recordings of Munch, Inghelbrecht, and Désormière in their prime are enough to disprove that notion.) Gratefully, Denève knows better. Ravel’s rhythms – the heartbeats of his music – were cleanly articulated, attacks bold. Instrumental detail sparkled individually, but always cohered into the ensemble seamlessly. The Valses nobles et sentimentales were lithe, pirouetting gracefully while sneaking in an ironic sneer; La Valse an uneasy swirling of the charming and the minatory. His crisp and carefully paced conducting of Boléro was a delightfully effervescent chaser.

Denève collaborated in the first half of the concert with violinist Augustin Hadelich in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, a score that captures the composer in mid-evolution. Amidst its post-Tchaikovskian richness of expression and texture, there begins to be discernible, in short but revealing moments, the mature Sibelius of the later symphonies. Hadelich was ideal for this score, relating his narrative in a warm, elastic voice that could be meltingly sweet at crucial points. He exercised remarkable control; a triumph of brains over brawn, though there were many moments, especially in the finale, where he showed off his that he has plenty of the latter too. But there was no need for him to ostentatiously show his muscles. His lovingly scultped, inward-looking conception of the concerto bore testament to his formidable virtuosity. Throughout Denève and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were sensitive partners, playing with heft and attentiveness to balance. The evocative cries of the falcons circling above the Hollywood Bowl’s shell in the concerto’s opening bars added to the bardic tone of the performance.

Denève and the orchestra opened the program with the Finnish composer’s deathless Valse triste, a performance which was also enlightening in its quiet way. Through their soberly elegant reading they illustrated how the later master of Tapiola and The Tempest can already be heard stirring there too, especially in the spare textures that open and close the work. It also eloquently summed up the collaborative spirit of this particular conductor and orchestra. As with much of Sibelius’ music, it is in those quiet moments that their finest qualities shone most resplendently.