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Orchestra de Paris superb under Bychkov's baton

Orchestra de Paris

Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.

Dimitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47.

Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, Music Conductor and Director.

Jean-Philippe Collard, Pianist.

Symphony Hall.

8 p.m., March 14.

By Michael K. Chung
Opinion Editor

At Symphony Hall this past Monday evening, the Orchestra de Paris, led by Music Director and Conductor Semyon Bychkov, presented a splendid concert of three works from three different centuries.

The concert opened with Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan. This piece is based on the legend of Don Juan by Austrian Nicolaus Lenau (1802-1850). He described his main character as longing "to find a woman who is to him the incarnate womanhood and to enjoy in one all the women on earth, whom he cannot as individuals possess. Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last disgust seizes hold of him, and this disgust is the Devil that fetches him."

The orchestra presented three different thematic elements at the onset of the piece and returned to them throughout, introducing and developing each theme in a dignified and artistic manner. The violins arpeggiated cleanly and confidently, representing Don Juan's unquenchable ardor. The lyrical theme symbolic of his yearning was brought out passionately, and the heroic motif was brought out by the horns distinguishably.

The orchestra impeccably exhibited balance between its sections, and rounded out dynamic shadings beautifully. The french horn portrayed Don Juan searching for his ideal woman especially expressively and the oboe established more pacific and serene thematic material.

The piece climaxed with a stunning dissonance, paused abruptly, and closed with violin tremolos to embody Don Juan's last breaths of life, as he allowed himself to be slain by an avenger of one of his amorous conquests. Without question, Bychkov led the orchestra to portray Don Juan as more of a psychological drama, and not as a playful account of a mere chaser of women.

Next on the program was Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto, known for its conflict between the piano and the orchestra. The theme of contrast was developed from the beginning, where the cellos and violins begin competing for the melody, symbolizing the forthcoming struggle between orchestra and soloist.

From his entrance, Collard performed cleanly and remained stylistically true to the piece. Classically structured, this concerto can be viewed as a romantic struggle between the piano and the orchestra. They interchanged lines smoothly and with brilliant execution, whether between agitated scenes or meditative passages.

The cadenza of the first movement included difficult rapid scales, arpeggios, and trills, while the rest of the passage revealed more subtle, meditative playing. The drama of the first movement was not exaggerated, and ended with the orchestra in an elegant fashion.

The second movement took the listener on a peaceful journey, interrupted by a stormy middle section, modulating from B-flat major to G minor. Dramaticism was prominent, although the orchestra may have been slightly too dynamically powerful in producing the effect. The closing movement was a minor key rondo (one of the few written by Mozart), presenting the piano and orchestra at odds with each other until the final cadenza. Finally, D major was settled upon by both sides to close the concerto in a lively manner.

Collard performed the Mozart piece impeccably and was received warmly by the crowd, which called him back to the stage several times, perhaps in the hopes of an encore presentation. Unfortunately, Collard presented no such gifts and retired for the evening.

The closing piece on the program was the highly exciting, dramatic, and unmistakably Russian Fifth Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich. Bychkov conducted the orchestra with remarkable poise and confidence. From the stately opening with the cellos and violins presenting the introductory theme, the strength and power of the orchestra made its presence known. The first movement continued in its martial character, accelerating into a driving fury, without ever losing accuracy or focus.

The second movement, essentially a dance-like scherzo, was taken a shade slower than is standard, but conveyed the spirit of the piece without problem. Especially noteworthy were the glissando sweeps by the woodwinds, performed with phenomenal accuracy. Despite a missed harmonic note in the concertmaster's violin solo, and the very slight imprecision of the second violin entrance, any technical mistakes throughout the concert were so few and of such minuscule proportion that to dwell on any would be grossly unfair to the orchestra's impressive performance.

The third movement, a dramatic and picturesque portrayal, like the survey of damage after a storm, was exquisite. The violins exhibited incredible control through their hushed yet intense playing. The flute and oboe solos were flawless and seamless, with remarkable connections and dramatic warmth.

The climactic ascension at the end of the movement was nothing short of breathtaking. The tone and intonation of the cellos at the top of their register were simply astonishing.

Unfortunately, a break was taken between the third and final movements. The final movement, an extremely powerful section, is often begun without pause to add to the symphony's dramatic effect. In spite of the break, Bychkov led the orchestra through a powerful and intense display of orchestral showmanship. He accelerated the tempo throughout the finale's opening, almost veering out of control. The violins were always unified, though, playing sixteenth notes with incredible agility and clarity.

Quite simply, this was a spectacular performance, all the more impressive because Bychkov did not use a score to conduct the Strauss and Shostakovich works. The Orchestra de Paris provided an enchanting evening for the audience and showed its appreciation by calling Bychkov back for four curtain calls. Bychkov and his orchestra displayed virtuosity and versatility in their performance of such a diverse program.