The Midland Symphony Orchestra looked at music with The French View Saturday night at the Midland Center for the Arts.
Maestro Carlton Woods has, among the many other talents and gifts he has brought to the orchestra as its Music Director and Conductor, shown himself to be a fine teacher on the podium. His concurrent position at Central Michigan University would probably have hinted at this already, but the proof for Midland has been in what he has done with that orchestra.
And it has been considerable. Having inherited an orchestra in some disarray, he has brought its discipline, sound, musicality, and range up in considerable proportions.
The purpose of a night of all French music is not just to provide a nice bow around a concert for marketing purposes, or even solely to give a unity of style for the audience. By choosing four works, so unified in nationality and time (they were all written within about a 40 year span), yet so different in style and purpose, Woods in effect gave the orchestra a master class in performance and history.
The first half of the program came off less well than did the second half, perhaps because there was so much in the program for the orchestra to master.
The concert began with Chabrier's Iberian evocation Espana, which received perhaps the most tentative reading of anything on the program. Responding to the work's tricky rhythms and difficult to manage entrances, the orchestra seemed quite hesitant in some of the quieter, more exposed passages, as if waiting to jump in with both feet in the louder, more regular ones. The reading was rather metronomic, with very little of the Frankish silkiness and very little of the stereotypical Latin hot blood.
In the next work, Debussy's La Mer, Woods took a very straightforward, almost "Germanic" approach to the music that gave it a rough, biting edge, emphasizing the highly dramatic over the fine and subtle.
There is a tradition in the performance of French music from about the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, which in the Debussy Woods seemed to eschew. Among other traits, this tradition calls for an almost "super legato" of line, with one note eliding directing into the next, almost without the sound of the second note being played. Further, there is often a rhythmic freedom, dating back to the "inégale" tradition of early French music, which often defies the exacting downbeats so characteristic of Mozart and Brahms.
If this almost mystically free style was lacking in the Debussy, it magically and effectively appeared in the second half. After intermission, French pianist Pascal Rogé was featured in a simply stunning performance of Saint-Saens' fifth piano concerto.
It is no overstatement to say that, while always having recognized the compositional merits of the piece, I had never really thoroughly enjoyed this work until hearing Rogé perform it Saturday night. There is a fluidity of sound to his style that should not be possible on such a percussive instrument as a piano. By combining that with an effortless freedom of expression, rhythm, and sonority, Rogé produced some extraordinarily delicate, lace-like sounds.
Not only was his technique brilliantly delicate, In the second movement coda, Rogé concluded with so dramatic a quiet tension and release that the entire 1000-plus audience was completely hushed and spellbound. At the end of the smashingly celebratory third movement, the audience was on its feet with loud cries of bravo for this amazing performance, and this time they were completely justified.
Surprisingly, in both the accompaniment to the Saint-Saens concerto and in the final work on the program, Ravel's bitter and cynical La Valse, Woods elicited far more of the "French sound" then had been evident in the first half. Setting the stage for the work by noting the post-WWI era of "decadence of all kinds," apparently including this work, Woods proceeded to lead the orchestra in a torrent of fluidity and spaciousness in their reading. Through entertwining woodwinds and shimmering strings, the work blew past in a hurricane of disciplined, dramatic, and (dare I say it?) decadent playing by this fine orchestra.