The Orchestre National d’Île-de-France’s purpose is to broadcast symphonic music through the Paris region, and particularly among new audiences. After three concerts in Puteaux, Villejuif and Maisons-Alfort, they brought their program to the Salle Pleyel. A new piece by Alberto Colla, Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Second Symphony formed a beautiful, complete concert called “Voyage d’Hiver” (“Winter Journey”) and conducted by Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård.

The Italian composer’s new piece, Ouverture pour l’éveil des peuples (“Overture for the peoples’ awakening”) is dedicated to the citizens who defend democracy, freedom and identity against the excesses of political systems. But despite its forward-looking spirit, Alberto Colla’s music seems more backward-looking, from the major first fanfare to some melodic elements evoking John Williams. Between neoclassicism and contemporary stylistic effects, we did not really know where that might lead us. Quite disjointed but very pleasant indeed, the piece opened the concert joyfully and correctly fulfilled its function – unlike Thomas Søndergård, who forgot to call the composer on stage to take a bow. Fortunately, the orchestra’s musical director Enrique Mazzola was here to rectify the mistake and dashed on stage with Colla.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is one of his most famous pieces. Passionate, expressive, virtuosic too, it is a manifesto for romanticism. Canadian violinist James Ehnes gave an original view of the score, quite intimate, without falling into the trap of overstatement. But he did not seem very comfortable with this repertoire and when, acclaimed by the audience, he gave two encores – Bach’s Third Sonata (third movement) and Third Partita (the Prelude) – he proved far more his many qualities as a very sensible and interesting musician: rich sound, long phrases perfectly led through to the end, and beautiful intonation. In the concerto, Ehnes’ touch was certainly secure and mature, but lacked a sense of freedom. Although the first movement was an attractive success, the orchestra lost intensity in the second one, and was quite disconnected with the soloist in the last one, where the main theme has to be jointly played by the violin, the flutes and the clarinets. The orchestral interventions were not very accurate and seemed to disturb the violinist. But we shall still remember a superb sound, coming out of Ehnes’ 1715 Stradivarius (ex-Marsick), was built far before Mendelssohn and even Bach composed the three pieces we heard.

After the intermission, the concert continued with more German romantic, symphonic music, with Brahms’ Second Symphony. The first movement was rather interesting, with delicate dynamics, strong melodic lines and a real sense of simplicity. Usually far slower, the second movement was given unexpected force and a mysterious, brooding atmosphere that showcased the strings’ momentum. The conductor’s original interpretation was convincing until then, but the fast tempo was fatal to the short Scherzo. Like in the concerto’s Finale, the orchestra did not sound together, and Søndergård chose to strengthen the main melodic lines only, above a torrent of notes that had no sense. Between this unsteady situation and the very fast tempo, we lost the whole musical discourse. And unfortunately we did not get it back during the grandiloquent Finale: the conductor kept on emphasizing the main lines without any support, erasing the thematic and harmonic power. We heard Berlioz rather than Brahms: huge orchestra, melodic inventiveness, but no German wideness and fortitude. And despite the blazing brass desks, these choices made even the triumphant coda sound hollow.