Pacific Symphony spends evening in France

Alexandre Tharaud
Orange County Register

Conductor Thierry Fischer and pianist Alexandre Tharaud make their guest spots count.

 By Timothy Mangan

The Pacific Symphony’s latest concert was unusual and tasty. The menu was French. A pair of guest artists made their debuts with the orchestra and brought their own distinctive sounds along. The concert didn’t hit the usual marks and refreshed all the more for not doing so.

The Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, who is music director of the Utah Symphony, was on the podium. He is perhaps better known in Europe, where he started out as a flutist and, as a conductor, has made a number of off-the-beaten track recordings for the British Hyperion label. In the few days of rehearsals with the Pacific musicians, he has managed to get them to play in a different way.

Thursday night in Segerstrom Concert Hall, pieces by Debussy, Ravel and Berlioz were on the program, specifically the “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun,” the Piano Concerto in G and a suite apparently of Fischer’s own devising from “Romeo and Juliet.”

Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which he called a “symphonie dramatique,” is unique and seldom performed, despite containing some of the composer’s most stunning music. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, it is a choral symphony with vocal soloists, but the form of it, part oratorio, part opera, part tone poem, is different: Where Beethoven resorts to singing because instruments alone will not convey his meaning,

Berlioz inverts the equation by making the body of his work for instruments alone, the better to express the passion of Shakespeare’s lovers, which was, for Berlioz, literally beyond words.

Fischer stitched together a sequence of the orchestral music (about 47 minutes worth, roughly half the score) that limned the basic plot: the battling Montagues and Capulets, “Romeo Alone” and the banquet scene, the “Love Scene,” and the death of the two lovers in the tomb. He added less than a minute of the finale, in a major key and representing the reconciliation of the warring families, to give his suite a proper and upbeat ending. A little oddly, he omitted the most famous music from the score, the “Queen Mab” scherzo, though admittedly it doesn’t further the plot.

Fischer clearly feels strongly about this music and you could hear him vocally urging the orchestra to play it. His motions were incisive and athletic and the musicians responded accordingly. He paced the work with an ear to the drama, swiftly in the battle and banquet, tenderly and patiently in the ravishing “Love Scene” (you could hear the lovers talking), haltingly as Romeo and Juliet suffer their last throes. He took particular care with Berlioz’s textures and rhythms, making sure we could hear all the strange intricacies in them.

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who has dug deep into his country's keyboard repertoire on recordings, gave an exceptionally elegant account of the Ravel concerto. It was collaborative; he played chamber music with the orchestra. His tone remained warm and intimate and he never behaved as the thundering solo star, though in the outer movements his playing was impressively speedy and snazzy. He captured the cool sunlight of the slow movement gently, quietly, perfectly. Please have him back.

Fischer and the orchestra supported him handily, the conductor taking great care with dynamics (including gradations of soft) and clear, bright colors. The whole evening Fischer had the strings playing with a more slender and shiny sound, the brass contained (but bright rather than behemoth when called upon), the woodwinds nicely forward in the sound picture. In short, it was what is known as the French style of orchestral performance, lighter and more lucid than the more common German style.

Accordingly, the “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun,” which opened the concert, was especially lovely, beautifully quiet and delicate and just a little subdued – an Impressionist painting of a dream rather than the dream itself.