Performance Review: Orcheste de Paris with Akiko Suwanai

On November 10, 2011, I had the pleasure of attending an exceptional performance by the Orcheste de Paris conducted by Paarvo Jarvi, with a special guest, virtuoso violinist from Japan, Akiko Suwanai.  The performance was held at the Salle Pleyel, located at 252 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, in the business district of Paris.  The pairing of Grammy Award winning conductor Jarvi with Suwanai, the youngest person ever to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition, was superb for the musical selection, performed by this world renowned orchestra, to celebrate the new arrival of such an amazing conductor as Parvi.

As the musicians entered the stage, the audience applauded with anticipation of an evening full of glorious music written by composers from the Classical era.  The songs selected conveyed a hint of romance, heartbreak, and drama, perfect for a beautiful fall evening in Paris, set under a bright full moon.  Once Jarvi joined the musicians, the audience quickly muted their applause and sat quietly in their seats excitedly awaiting the full program of three magnificent compositions to be performed: Der Freischütz, overture by Carl Maria von Weber, Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) by Felix Mendelssohn, followed by a short intermission, and all five movements of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz to round out the evening.

The first song was the Der Freischüt Overture, composed by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber debuted this piece in Halle, Germany July 31st 1820, after many years of collaboration with playwright Friedrich Kind.  Originally titled Die Jagersbraut, the opera’s name was changed to reflect the name of Johann August Apel’s novella, Der Freischütz, which the opera was written after.  The overture was quite a lively piece of work, that lasted approximately 12 minutes, and grabbed our attention while giving we, the audience, the opportunity to listen to each of the musicians marked talents.

Weber himself explained Der Freischütz is constructed from two elements, “The world of the forest and hunting and the reign of demonic powers.” The first is characterized by an instrumentation using the horns and melodic writing of popular inspiration. The “sinister element” himself is rendered “dark and dismal,” obtained by “exploiting the deep recesses of the violins, violas, basses, the clarinet […], the melancholy sound of the bassoon, the lowest notes of the horns, the dark rolling of drums […]. ” Indeed, the beautiful slow introduction is mainly to expose “the world of the forest.” Then in the Allegro following, the different patterns declines evil of the opera: the theme of Black Hunter (Samuel), the desperation of the hero (Max), entrusted to the clarinets, and the evocation of the terrible Throat-aux-Loups. The third part of the opening added a feminine element to the Opera (Agathe) because the clarinet themes of love for Agathe, whose melody, first worried, will eventually prevail and triumph over the forces of evil. This triumph of Good allows the opening to find a jubilant ending which was demonstrated by Jarvi’s animated and lively direction of the musicians on stage.

For this piece, Jarvi opted to decrease the size of the Orchestra slightly, to subdue some of the dynamic sound.  A portion of the percussion, brass and woodwinds sections were removed and the first and second violin sections were also reduced in size.  The piece was played at ff fortissimo level throughout, and the concert hall being a bit smaller than most, the adjustment in the number of musicians on stage was a good compromise for the robust sound projected during the Overture.

The second song was the Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) written by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.  Prompted by his friend, Ferdinand David (1810-1873), first violin of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Mendelssohn began writing this particular concerto in the late 1930s.  He labored over the endeavor for many years before finally completing it in 1844.  It was first performed in Leipzig in the spring of 1945, with Mendelssohn conducting.    While the concerto respects the traditional three-movement classical-romantic format, Mendelssohn immediately innovated it by bringing the soloist in the second degree, skipping a traditional symphonic introduction. He connects the three movements together others by arranging short transitions leading from one to another, running and working in a continuous stream of sound –  essentially a moderate allegro dreamer, a meditation and then the soloist sings a deliciously slow finale.  Suwanai, as the soloist, delivers a magical atmosphere typical of a carved musician, sparkling in sound.

The size of the orchestra was decreased once again, in order to highlight the delicate sounds of the solo, played by Akiko Suwanai.  She played softly, yet with wonderful dynamics, not once did the higher notes of the violin screech.  Regardless of the soft sound, the violin was crystal clear, yet she played with such vigor.  Suwanai broke a string on the violin during the beginning of the concerto.  She immediately traded instruments with the first chair violin and while he graciously repaired her violin, she played his so that the performance went uninterrupted.  She continued to play the piece as beautifully as she did on her own instrument, but it was interesting to notice that the sound between the two violins was distinctly different – the first chair’s violin had a deeper, more masculine sound, while her violin had a soft, feminine sound with marked timbre.  The audience was in awe of her seamless transition and calm demeanor.

Before the completion of the piece, the two traded instruments again and Suwanai was able to complete her solo on her beloved Antonio Stradivarius 1714 violin ‘Dolphin’, one of the most famous violins known today, and previously owned by the celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz, which has kindly loaned to her by the Nippon Music Foundation.  At the end of the performance, the audience showed great appreciation for her masterful execution of the concerto, yelling out “Bravo!” “Magnifique!”, and “Encore!”  We all began clapping in unison until Suwanai returned to the stage for three mesmerizing encores.  After all of the excitement, the 15-minute intermission was welcomed opportunity to refocus my attention for the final composition of the evening.

The second half of the evening’s performances was dedicated entirely to the Symphonie Fantastique, composed by Hector Berlioz, in 1830.  It was written literally as an ‘Episode in an Artist’s Life’, rumored to represent Berlioz’s obsession with Harriet Smithson, an actress and his first wife.  Through the five moments of the symphony, Berlioz spells out his dreams in dramatic form.  The slow waltz portrays the movement of the joys and sorrows before he sees his beloved.  During the fourth movement, the artist murders the woman and is then led to execution – at which point we hear the guillotine slice off the artist’s head, via a bow sliding across the strings of a violin, and the dramatic sound of it falling into a basket below by the drums.  The artist finds himself in a turbulent witches’ Sabbath, during the finale.   In 1855, the program was altered so that the artist awakens from whole dramatic episode as an end to a dream, not the end of their lives.  We heard the clarinet played a shrieking solo in E-flat reflective of the original finale as it was written, as presentation of his beloved’s image after death.  The explicit drama of Berlioz’s symphony calls for the full display of the orchestra.  Thus, Jarvi added the harps, bells, tamarins, large drums, and tubas.  He also increased the number of bassoons, trumpets, French horns and trombones to give the vivid action of the program’s unprecedented boldness and originality.

Since all three composers were friends and colleagues, it seems that this spirit was carried forward on stage this evening by the entire orchestra.  Mendelssohn attended the premier of Weber’s Der Freischütz, which created a sensation with the German press and he played the harp part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on piano at a benefit concert the composer had hosted on February 4, 1843.  Berlioz re-orchestrated Weber’s Der Freischütz for the Paris Opera in 1841, staying as true to the original composition by Weber as possible in his French translation of the work.  While this was Jarvi’s first-time conducting the Orchestre de Paris, there was a sense of fondness and respect displayed in his mannerisms.  The ease in which he floated about the work, with gentle prompting to beg for more from each section as he moved along in each piece, allowed for excellent showmanship from his entire orchestra.  While he came out four times, at the demands of the audience for an encore, the orchestra did not play one, but Jarvi used each opportunity to show his gratitude for a job well done by all of the musicians.