Since the days of James Levine’s directorship, it has been a tradition for The Metropolitan’s pit orchestra to offer a series of performances at Carnegie Hall after the end of the opera season. These concerts were meant to provide both star singers and the members of the ensemble a chance to explore non-operatic repertoire. In many a case, the results have been spectacular, with excellence resulting from the combination of high-caliber interpreters and renditions unbridled by routine.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans Van Der Woerd

On Monday night, the Montréal born Yannick Nézet-Séguin proposed a program of French music composed, with one notable exception, in the first decade of the 20th century. Book-ended by performances of two well-known masterpieces – La Mer and Daphnis et Chloé, suite no. 2 – the evening was first and foremost a lesson on differences in style between Debussy and Ravel, composers many times mentioned together. Thus, the audience witnessed the incertitude of relentless experimentation against the desire to innovate from within tradition, the flexible structures as opposed to the disciplined formal approach, the ambiguous rhythmic patterns – “rhythms are stifling” Debussy claimed – in opposition to more or less conventional, dance-inspired ones.

Nézet-Séguin took a similar approach to La Mer as he proposed earlier in the season helming the same ensemble in Pelléas et Melisande. In an unrushed rendition, he accentuated not lavish sonorities but the score's shimmering modernism and unsmoothed angularities. Individual contributions by concertmaster Benjamin Bowman and by various wind instruments were perfectly integrated in the overall musical tapestry as they were during the entire evening. From the pianissimo first bars, “De l'aube à midi sur la mer” was very atmospheric, full of subtle shadings. The conductor showed no intention to provide easy, ear-pleasing resolutions. The joyful “Jeux de vagues” was marked by doubts. The escalation towards the storm in “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” was full of menace.

Ravel has never visited Greece and had limited knowledge about the ancient world. His depiction of “Arcadia” is influenced not only by an Orient seen through Rimsky-Korsakov’s eyes but also by the sound-world of all those 19th-century operas dealing with “exotic” Oriental subjects. Ravel creates in Daphnis et Chloé a very special universe, with constantly shifting instrumental textures, a wide range of spatial effects and rhythms enveloping melodies of great charm that Nézet-Séguin and the Met orchestra rendered beautifully. The conductor brought forward Ravel’s unsurpassed gift as an orchestrator but also his subtlety in using musical colors, reminding listeners of the French composer’s deep admiration for Mozart’s oeuvre. Despite the huge orchestral apparatus deployed, he kept every outburst under a tight control, including the Danse générale apotheosis.

The performance featured, on both sides of the interval, mezzo Isabel Leonard who continued here her successful exploration of the French repertoire. (She was cast both as Mélisande and as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites during the latest Metropolitan season). She demonstrated her keen sense of language and a wonderful lack of affectation in both scores.

Shéhérazade is one of Ravel's opuses where the younger master's writing is closest to Debussy’s elusive style. The music clearly captures the sense of longing emerging from Tristan Klingsor’s verses. Beautifully supported by the orchestra, Leonard used slightly different approaches in portraying the three different characters. In “Asie”, the longest of the songs, the need to escape from the quotidian, marked by the obsessive “je voudrais voir…” was rendered with what seemed a mixture of conviction and doubt. “La flute enchantée” was here clearly foreshadowing the later composed Daphnis et Chloé.

With his preoccupation for sound coloring and the quality of timbres, Henri Dutilleux followed in the same footsteps as many of his predecessors in the history of 20th-century French music. Augmented and refined until the last years of the composer’s long artistic career, juxtaposing texts by Jean Tardieu, Robert Desnos and Baudelaire, Le temps l’horologe could be described as an exploration of the differences between discrete and continuous time. The soundscape is both rich and concise, so listening to the piece just once doesn’t do it justice. Leonard’s mezzo isn’t as mellifluous as it is bright and charismatic. It was perfectly suited for Dutilleux’s aphorisms.

Delving for an entire evening into the realm of French modern music proved to be a great experiment for an orchestra renowned for its versatility.