"Freedom fries": no two words could better summarize the crassness that characterized the early years of the American 21st century.

Stéphane Denève © Tom Finnie
Stéphane Denève
© Tom Finnie

In the wake of disagreement over the Iraq War, American xenophobes sought to eradicate from these shores any vestige of the Tricolour.

French cheeses? Au revoir!
French wine? Hélas—adieu!

Yet Gallic civilization has permeated American culture far deeper than the adoption of certain foodstuffs.

Consider the legacy of composers Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Virgil Thompson, and others of the "lost generation" of the 1920s who spent their student years in Paris honing their technique under the tutelage of the great French pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger; drinking in deep the music of Ravel, Debussy, and Les six. Their Francophilia left a profound impression on the next generation of composers, including Leonard Bernstein.

It was this aspect of American music that Stéphane Denève illuminated Thursday night; the two works by Ravel and Gershwin that sat on opposite sides of the concert's intermission making his point eloquently.

George Gershwin, on the cusp of his 30th year and seeking inspiration from the "City of Lights" for his work-in-progess An American in Paris, famously approached the composer Maurice Ravel soliciting him for musical advice and composition lessons.

"But why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel," asked the startled Frenchman, "when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"

Gershwin's breezy love letter to Paris, with its reminiscences of taxi horns, street ditties, and the bustling of the crowds and cars on the city's boulevards, was tailor-made for Denève's talents. His exacting ear for airy textures, vibrant color, and buoyant rhythms resulted in a nearly visceral evocation of the city; its sights and scents almost palpable.

France also made itself felt in the opening work, Bernstein's Overture to Candide. Not only because the operetta from which the overture was derived is based upon Voltaire's mordant satire. But its chirpy wind writing, jaunty gait, polyrhythms, and unforced joy, though pure Bernstein, echoes with the unmistakable influence of Chabrier, Milhaud, and Poulenc.

On the other hand the following work, the Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein's On the Town, demonstrated the French touch deployed in a more subtle manner. Its light textures owe as much to Broadway as to the banks of the Seine.

But the influence traveled both ways, as was shown when pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined Denève on stage for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Though in his late 50s when he composed the work, Ravel remained, as ever, possessed of a child-like delight in exploring the new. His love of American jazz and the music of Gershwin – as well as his lifelong love of Mozart and Basque folk music – reach their apogee in the composer's final major work.

With sureness, Thibaudet brought all these aspects to life. In this elegant traversal, he never brought self-conscious attention to the work's jazzy flavor or his own remarkable technique. His prowess was on dazzling display in the moto perpetuo finale with its cascading ostinati. Only in the Adagio assai one wished Thibaudet had lingered just a little longer in one of Ravel's most beautiful moments. But on its own terms Thibaudet's clear-eyed interpretation was effective.

At the end it was music wholly French that closed the program.

The second suite from Ravel's "choreographic symphony" Daphnis and Chloé closed the program. Denève's balancing of the woodwinds in the opening of the "Dawn" section was luminescent. Especially memorable was the graceful expressiveness of flautist David Buck. Strings didn't escape Denève's attention either. From them he drew gorgeously sculpted playing with luscious portamenti that spotlit the music's ripe eroticism. The raucous din of the music's bacchanalian coda capped an evening that established Denève as one of the conducting greats of his generation, with the New York Philharmonic again outstanding as only very few orchestras are today.

When Denève closed the evening with a surprise reprise of the Candide Overture, now accompanied by a scintillating fireworks display, one came away convinced that the wide Atlantic that separated the United States and France isn't so wide after all. The influence of France, transfigured into expressions intrinsically American, will endure as a lasting testament to the friendship of two unique and vibrant cultures.