Orchestre National de Lyon performs Ravel, Berlioz in showcase of influences of French culture

Ernst van Tiel with Orchestre national de Lyon in January of 2015. (Yelkrokoyade/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The Orchestre National de Lyon took to the stage at Jorgensen and performed a lush and vivid program of French music under the baton of their renowned music director Leonard Slatkin on Saturday Feb. 18.

They opened the night with Ravel’s Schéhérazade, ouverture de féerie. First performed in 1899, the overture is Ravel’s earliest orchestral work still in performance today. The piece abounds with complex and contrasting colors, and draws on many cultural influences – including the impressionistic harmonic palette of Debussy; the bolder, more rustic style of the Russian composers; and the Arabian atmospheres of the original legend.

The musicians graciously wove their way through the intricate phrases, evoking rich colors and demonstrating their stylistic capacities in a piece that ironically defies many of the conventions of French music.

The evening took a more personal tone with the next piece, Kinah, written in 2015 by the orchestra’s conductor Leonard Slatkin. The maestro addressed the audience, explaining that his father played the violin and his mother played the cello, and both were regarded as leading members of the musical circle in Hollywood.

Slatkin’s father passed away at age 47,  the night before the duo was scheduled to perform the Brahms Double Concerto (for violin and cello). As 2015 marked the year his father would have turned 100, Slatkin wrote the piece as a tribute to the performance that never took place.

The work is entirely built around the first four notes of the concerto – all the successive motivic material derives from that opening. Throughout the strange and otherworldly piece, bone-chilling timbres and even utter cacophony were evoked. Toward the work’s end, a violin and cello could be heard from offstage, playing incomplete phrases from the Brahms – a final reminder of the performance that never happened.

Next, the orchestra played another work by Ravel – Tzigane, a composition for solo violin and orchestra, which draws on gypsy culture and folk music. Violinist and ONL concertmaster Jennifer Gilbert took the stage as the soloist, opening with a fiendishly long and difficult cadenza (or solo without accompaniment) before the orchestra joined her in the gypsy airs. Gilbert’s violin’s tone was dark and resonant, drawing all eyes as her sound filled the hall.

Following the intermission, the orchestra performed the most anticipated work of the night – Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Written in five moments as opposed to the normal four for a symphony, Berlioz’s masterwork features the timeless narrative of a young man who has fallen in love with a woman, only to have his passions go unreciprocated.

The resulting journey takes the audience through the young man’s daydreams to a romantic ball, to a pastoral countryside where a storm looms in the distance, to the gallows, and then to a land of witches and demons where the supernatural reigns. The orchestra led the way through it all, with Slatkin their gentle guide. His baton did not command, but rather invited them to join him. His reserve and grace distinguished him where he stood.

With the glorious final chord, the orchestra received a standing ovation. The applause persisted, so the musicians returned to play two movements from Bizet’s Carmen Suites, the first of which they played normally, and the second of which took on a country-western twist, with cowbells, whistles and fiddling in the strings – all to the audience’s delight.

“The fact that the orchestra traveled all the way from Lyon really showed that they were professionals,” Niccolò Meniconi, a freshman music major with a focus in piano performance, said. “It was great music being performed by great musicians. The encores were also a lot of fun.”

“Symphony Fantastique is one of my favorite pieces,” Grant Morrison, a senior music composition major, said. “Being a musician and a composer here at UConn, it’s almost once in a lifetime to have something like this here, and as arts majors to come for free – to see such a milestone of musical culture. You can’t put a price on that.”


Brian Roach is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at brian.roach@uconn.edu.