By coincidence or not, the third week of the Enescu Festival in Bucharest proposed multiple conductor-less ensembles. Following the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s performance, there were two consecutive evenings showcasing the prowess of Les Dissonances, the ensemble founded by violinist David Grimal almost two decades ago. All these concerts were a clear demonstration that the paradigm of musical forces being led by a Kapellmeister – as represented by Matthew Truscott (in MCO’s case) or Grimal – is still very much alive in the 21st century.

David Grimal and Les Dissonances
© Cătălina Filip

After a Ravel–Enescu–Stravinsky evening, Les Dissonances' second programme had a more symmetrical structure. A pair of violin-centred works of smaller dimensions, placed on both sides of the intermission, were bookended by two masterpieces of the first half of the 20th century. The two works with Grimal as soloist were barely an illustration of why the ensemble considers itself as a “laboratory of a collective of committed musicians”. Both Chausson and Ravel’s works included in the programme are rhapsodic in nature, the orchestra mostly supporting a soloist who has a clear leading role. Wielding a baton or a bow does not make a lot of difference. 

Grimal captured well the melancholic nature of Chausson’s Poème, with its sound waves emerging from Lento e misterioso, gradually becoming agitated and pyrotechnical, and eventually finding their way back into tranquility. Like other Ravel compositions, Tzigane is arguably more interesting in its violin-piano version, the orchestration edulcorating the original. With its shifting speeds and rhythmical instability, the brief score is full of technical challenges that Grimal dispatched with great ease, drawing instead attention to the many harmonic transformations and to the soloist’s liberty to choose his path. Without a conductor, there was no potential clash of personalities giving mixed signals to the orchestra.

Les Dissonances
© Cătălina Filip

The evening started with Stravinsky’s suite from The Firebird. The execution was particularly clean, the solo instrumental moments – horn, bassoon, oboe – were pregnant. Overall, the level of cohesiveness attained by the members of the ensemble was impressive indeed. Everything was fine, but there were few sparks in this rendition. Entrances had no urgency. All these faultlessly executed changes in dynamic and rhythmic patterns were occasionally bland, not abrupt as they should have been. It was even more difficult than usual to fathom the shock felt by the spectators first hearing the music back in 1910.

Prefaced by Grimal’s thoughtful version of the third movement – Melodia (Adagio) – from Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, the Concerto for Orchestra was much more exciting. As in the Firebird, the concertmaster was almost always impassibly still while the violins where not playing, but that didn’t stop the instrumentalists from bringing forward the beauty of all those Hungarian syncopated rhythms and Bartók’s phenomenal ability to integrate folkloric elements, modern sonorities and classical forms. The second movement, with its sequential presentation of different pairs of winds, and the poetic “night music” in the Elegia were particularly memorable.

Grimal and his musicians refer to the ensemble’s name as a “marker of a constructive divergence from conventional thinking”, meaning they approach large symphonic pieces without a decree imposed by the conductor but via the collaborative effort of the “actors” themselves. The method reminds one of Pirandello’s Six Characters in search of an Author. The consonant/dissonant dichotomy can be seen from a different angle. Progress – a new discovery or a fresh interpretation of a musical work – rarely stems from group consensuses, but from disruptions of an existing system proposed by one individual, regardless of how we label him – scientist, philosopher, painter... or conductor.