Even though I’ve been to quite a lot of concerts these past few years, I still can’t put my finger on why some concerts attract many attendees and especially why some are so sparsely visited. This Friday’s concert had an incredibly solid program, with music by Messiaen, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Debussy performed by one of the Netherlands’ best orchestras, yet it attracted the smallest crowd I’ve seen so far at Vredenburg. Thankfully it was also on the radio so I hope more people were able to enjoy the concert, as it was definitely worth a visit.

Renaud Capuçon © Mat Hennek
Renaud Capuçon
© Mat Hennek

Conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay was a last-minute replacement of Serge Baudo, but he more than held his own. Conducting the orchestra with an energy that reminded me of fellow French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Tremblay had contagious enthusiasm while still being in full control. The orchestra obviously responded well to him, although the venue might want to have a look at the conductor podium, all his moving around was accompanied by creaks! Fortunately these creaks weren’t too loud, and didn’t limit Tremblay’s movement.

Olivier Messiaen’s Un sourire is a witty little work, as the title (translated as “a smile”) suggest. Two contrasting forces are at work in the piece: lush strings, smoothing everything over, and percussion, woodwind and brass, playing cheerful interludes that almost feel like their aim is to wake the strings up. Despite an uncharacteristically hesitant flute, the Radio Philharmonic’s performance was solid, adding warmth to the strings and some much-appreciated humor to the percussion.

For the second and third pieces of the evening, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, the orchestra and Tremblay were joined by violinist Renaud Capuçon. His playing was marvelous from start to finish. The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is a moving and intense piece, but it can become overly romantic and thereby lose some of its original Spanish influence if the violinist is too smooth, or plays too much vibrato. Capuçon seemed to be aware of this, his playing was balanced yet aggressive with well thought-out vibrato and an irresistibly beautiful tone. Although the performance of the Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso was slightly faster than what I am used to, this seemed to be a good decision. What with the energy emanating from both Tremblay and Capuçon, the orchestra appeared in equally good and excited shape, never rushing but certainly galloping through the work.

Ravel’s Tzigane is an absolutely fascinating piece for violin and orchestra. Inspired by Hungarian folk music, Ravel was careful not to mimic gypsy music and really gave it a twist of his own. The work starts with a violin solo before the harp and other orchestra members join in, expanding on the melodies introduced by the violin. Capuçon’s playing was breathtaking; his solo contained a raw energy and sound that elevated the Tzigane from being merely virtuosic (it really demands everything of the violinist) to a piece of music with emotional depth. This rawness was retained by Capuçon throughout the piece, playing melodies that ranged from haunting to manic. The role of the orchestra in Tzigane really is submissive to the violin, offering the comforting background to the prominent violin. Despite this, the performance seemed symbiotic, with musicians feeding off each other’s energies and the orchestra: Capuçon and Tremblay brought the best out in each other.

Claude Debussy’s Images is a work with a completely different energy from the Ravel and Saint-Saëns. This created a sense of balance to the program, with the works by Messiaen and Debussy being the more soothing and harmony-focused, framing the Saint-Saëns and Ravel, the more melodically powerful and energetic heart of the program. As such, I found the Debussy quite underwhelming.

Images is indubitably a beautiful work of music, the kind of thing you might put on to calm yourself or just to relax. The Radio Philharmonic played it well – but with the piece’s emphasis being on harmony instead of melody, creating musical landscapes instead of events, I found it lacked the emotional depth and impact of the other works played tonight. Tremblay certainly put his best foot forward, dancing almost as much as conducting, but the performance failed to excite me. Perhaps my reaction would have been different had it been played before Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso and Tzigane, before the magic of folk-inspired melodies and Renaud Capuçon’s presence.

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