This Saturday evening past, French conductor Stéphane Denève led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Parisian-themed program at the Kimmel Center that culminated in a truly first-rate performance of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.
The maestro gave a charming introduction to the program in which he sang several French lullabies quoted in Debussy’s Images pour orchestre and offered an explanation for his ordering of the triptych, which was in fact published as three separate pieces. Launching into the first of the three, Rondes de printemps, the orchestra immediately captured the shimmering quality characteristic of the French “impressionists.” Mr. Denève conducts with a sparkling energy, and in this performance he made excellent use of the orchestra’s dynamic range, ending the piece with a pianissimo that was completely shattered by a cymbal crash and blast of brass; there were many such endings on this program.
Gigues opened with a unison chord that could have used some more tuning in rehearsal, but that offense was quickly forgotten, as we were treated to a lush woodwind melody underpinned by a nervous tension in the strings. There is a strong temptation in Debussy’s music—no doubt encouraged by the embattled term “impressionism”—to let some of the inner voices be merely “textural” (metaphorically speaking, of course). Mr. Denève succumbed to no such temptations, instead allowing us to hear every line clearly.
Mr. Denève channelled a superb array of colors for the final leg of the triptych, Ibéria, Debussy’s idealized musical reflections on Spanish culture. The first movement, “Par les rues et par les chemins,” was characterized by a sustained hum of activity with occasional bursts of energy. The tempo was wonderfully free, and when it accelerated there was a feeling not just of forward motion, but of increased activity and tension. In “Les parfums de la nuit,” one could hear the entire orchestra pulsing together, and as night transitioned into morning, “Le matin d'un jour de fête” sneaked in so subtly that one hardly noticed the transition until the opening crescendo reached its terrific climax. Mr. Denève has a very particular hair-flying, almost off-balance brand of conducting. In faster tempi, it looks as though he is throwing the baton at the orchestra with every beat.
After intermission came a very admirable performance of Francis Poulenc’s ballet suite Les Biches. The opening was titillating, and there was a wonderfully coy charm to the oboe’s melody in the second movement. When he wanted to pick up the tempo a bit, the orchestra was right with him the entire way, as was I. The exception here was the finale, which went very much faster than it needed to, and in which the woodwinds struggled to keep up with a string section that was already laboring mightily to stay together.
And then, Gershwin. An American in Paris, the jazzy tone poem that inspired the 1951 MGM film of the same name, can always be counted on to set audiences cheering. On Saturday night it did much more. Mr. Denève superbly captured the urban feel of the piece: the famous taxi horns called for in the score contributed to the carefully-orchestrated chaos that so effectively conveyed the feeling of dashing across a Parisian avenue. The first statement of the romantic blues theme (Gershwin once described it as “a spasm of homesickness,” though my own perception of it is forever stamped with the image of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron rushing into each other’s arms) had a delightfully lazy, jazzy brass sound that was simply irresistible, as the lush, warm sound of romance contrasted beautifully with the urgency of the jumpy cityscape. The final statement of this theme, when it emerged out of dizzying confusion, was hair-raising. As it gave way to the piece’s thrilling, clangorous finish, the audience roared and I could not help but join in.