This being my first visit of Paris’s new Philharmonie concert hall, I was obviously excited. As I stood in the entrance hall, surrounded by almost 2000 other people, I quickly understood that I was not the only one. The huge crowd queuing to find their seats was an encouraging sight, bringing faith to those invested in the future of classical music: when two stars of today’s contemporary classical music scene come together, conductor Fabien Gabel and violinist virtuoso Nemanja Radulović, a full house is assured.

Nemanja Radulović © Marie Staggat | Deutsche Grammophon
Nemanja Radulović
© Marie Staggat | Deutsche Grammophon

Before any of the evening’s virtuosities began, the Orchestre National de France first tackled the première of Marco-Antonio Pérez-Ramirez’s Edades Ciegas. Full of very technical playing and clean conducting, the orchestra took no time in showing its own virtuosity and musical dexterity, in particular the violin and cello solos. Though certainly an audacious start to a concert, with its discords and harsh contrasting passages, it nonetheless made for an explosive start to the evening.

Walking on stage almost humbled by the full concert hall, already rapturously applauding before having heard a single note of Niccolo Paganini’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, Radulović looked completely at odds with the surrounding orchestral musicians: dressed like Sgt Pepper crossed with the Grateful Dead, he certainly stood out amongst the white ties and tailcoats. Surrounded on all sides by an eager audience, Radulović thoughtfully began the concert facing those sat behind and around the orchestra, his back to the rest of the hall; in fact, he naturally rotated almost throughout his performance, allowing him not only to engage with the entire audience but also with the orchestra and the conductor.

Gabel’s conducting has a very firm and strict feel, and I longed to see him let loose, even for a second. However, conducting a symphonic orchestra and trying to keep up with a violin virtuoso is no easy feat, and though there were a few rhythmic lapses, Gabel’s generally tight conducting allowed Radulovic in turn to show the audience what he is capable of. One important thing must be said: as far as I am aware, Radulović has not sold his soul to the devil in exchange for jaw-dropping violin skills (though his PR agent may simply have decided to keep that under wraps for now!). Knowing that there is no black magic or trickery makes Radulović’s performance all the more impressive, as he almost playfully worked his way through Paganini’s endless musical challenges. Clearly at ease with the hall’s commendable acoustics, his rich vibrato and strong bowing rang out throughout the hall (even the smallest harmonic and pizzicato could be heard by all). Though one can only take so many light speed runs up and down the violin before getting a little nauseated, Radulović managed to make this no less beautiful and enthralling. Put simply, he is able to blend pure virtuosity with musicality, something that is not commonly found today: whereas for many the explosive virtuosity is merely a smokescreen, here it is beautiful.

Having finished Paganini’s concerto, Radulović then announced an encore: his Caprice no. 24 no less. Preparing myself for another rollercoaster of thirds, sixths, octaves and harmonics, this was the Caprice in a way I had never heard before, a rock-influenced cover of Paganini’s famous work, full of “wah-wah” vibrato and fuzzy distortion by grinding the strings with his bow, all whilst carefully bringing out Paganini’s seemingly delicate but treacherously virtuosic melody. Radulović’s refreshing open-minded spirit and unashamedly rockstar attitude are to be wholly applauded. They say, “seeing is believing”: unfortunately, I’m still trying to believe, and like any good magic trick, I definitely need to see it again.

Quite understandably, nobody would wish to follow such an explosive performance by Radulović. However, Borodin didn’t have any say in the matter, and his Prince Igor Overture came to ease the audience into the second half of the concert. It is safe to say, however, that most of the audience were still recovering from the previous spectacle, and Borodin’s music, albeit beautiful in its own way, seemed somewhat lacking in the necessary energy to keep the audience buzzing. Facing the strings in the front rows, I was perhaps not ideally situated to wholly appreciate Borodin’s rich and full orchestration, resulting in the wind and brass in particular being overpowered. Nonetheless, those passages where the strings allowed the brass to be heard, notably the horn solo, rang out beautifully.

The famous introduction to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Ravel, certainly packed a punch with the Philharmonie’s acoustics, and the brass got the music going very well indeed. Unfortunately, as a whole the orchestra took a while to fully pull out all the stops, though when they did eventually find the necessary warmth, particularly during the beautifully saxophone solo, the proud melodies were ringing throughout the hall, brimming with passion. Barely had the notes faded into the distance that the audience returned the passion in full, applauding both the orchestra and Gabel.