In the early years of the 20th century, along the streets of Paris, a society of writers, artists, and musicians—among them Maurice Ravel—known as Les Apaches would exchange the secret greeting devised for members to recognize each other. When one Apache would approach the another, they would whistle the first theme from Borodin's Second Symphony, knowing that when the other whistled back the rest of the theme, they were one of their own.

Stéphane Denève © Drew Farrell
Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell

The secret greeting of the society is a powerful reminder of the fascination that Russian music held for French composers of the era. Through the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dargomizhsky, and others, composers such as Debussy and Ravel found one of the keys that helped liberate French musical language from the dominance of Teutonic theory.

Stéphane Denève, guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday night, has emerged in recent years as an artist of the front rank. Recordings for Naxos and Chandos have borne eloquent testament to a leader that is able to coax pliant, expressive playing with an elegant finish from his orchestras. His appearance before the Philharmonic showed him to be a conductor who is not merely a creation of the studio, but a genuine talent.

The portly, bespectacled Frenchman with his curly mane of fiery red hair, had in his arsenal of conducting gestures a wide array of emphatic motions. His arms swing in wide circles while his face, perspiring heavily, runs a whole gamut of expressive contortions. But despite the extroversion of his technique, the sound he produces is smooth and controlled; never dull. It's his remarkable ear for orchestral balance and clarity that make for an almost visceral thrill to his music-making.

This was heard to stunning effect in Rachmaninov's valedictory orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances. Right from the heavy tread of the opening movement, one felt an unassailable rightness in Denève's approach. Climaxes were carefully prepared and judged; the grip on the work's architecture firm, but never unyielding. He also etched in phrasing of bubbly wit, heard best in the second movement's lumbering, nocturnal waltz.

On the other hand, in Leopold Stokowski's "Symphonic Synthesis" of themes from Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, Denève indulged himself in the work's riot of Technicolor brilliance. The orchestra burst into the score with a panoply of colors worthy of a Titian. No instrumental detail escaped his attention, yet there never was a focus on only the particular. Each individual strand was telling; woven together into a majestic tapestry, shaping a firm ensemble sound.

If there was a problem, it wasn't Denève. As brilliant as Stokowski's synthesis is, it's also one that defangs Boris Godunov's sense of tragedy and dread. In his similar syntheses of operas by Wagner, Stokowski succeeded because the orchestral writing in Wagner already tells the story of their operas almost already convey the power of these lyric dramas as compellingly without the voices. In Wagner the orchestra is an equal to the voice; sometimes its master. It isn't a mere accompanist to the singer, but instead is often the leader; the power of the orchestra almost submerging the voices on stage.

Boris Godunov is altogether different. There Mussorgsky's orchestra is an equal to the voices, illuminating and sometimes narrating the action on stage. But ultimately dependent on the voices, especially the chorus. Stokowski's synthesis, without the libretto and the voices, shears off the danger from Mussorgsky's score. What had been a drama where the scent of blood and the dread of coming disaster weighs with ever increasing oppressiveness, in the synthesis becomes only an innocuously colorful pageant.

The Philharmonic's concertmaster took a turn as solo star in the rarely performed Violin Concerto by Julius Conus. Martin Chalifour brought his sweet, agile technique to a work that Denève likened to the violin concerto that Rachmaninov never wrote.

Bold and broadly expressive, the work is writ large with square jawed themes; replete with rich orchestral color. From its very beginning, with its powerful ascending horn fanfare-like motif, Conus gives his soloist little time to relax. All the way to the coda the concerto's calisthenics for the violinist rarely let up. It is a lovely work, if not particularly original. Lasting approximately 25 minutes, with its three movements following each other without pause, the work never overstays its welcome, and would make for an attractive replacement to the deathless Tchaikovsky concerto.

Chalifour skillfully navigated Conus' writing with complete sureness of technique and creamy playing. His glossy sound was ideal in this work, spotlit most attractively in the work's slow movement.

Already at this stage Denève occupies a position of eminence among living conductors. What he can work with other composers, only time will tell. Until then, Angelenos will have to wait impatiently for the conductor's next visit—or get their fix via his recordings.