For his return to the National Symphony Orchestra’s podium this week after a three-decade absence, conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier interpreted an impressionistic program gilded with finesse and elegance.
Filling in for music director Gianandrea Noseda, who launched his simultaneous tenure in the same role at the Zurich Opera House with Verdi’s Il trovatore this month, Tortelier said he spent a “wonderful week” with a more rigorous and expressive orchestra. The musicians maintained a delicate balance that allowed easily neglected voices to emerge through precise phrasing in selections from Suites Nos. 1 and 2 of George Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, the East Coast premiere of an NSO co-commission by Angélica Negrón (En otra noche, en otro mundo), and the full “choreographic symphony” of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. The entire program was united in evoking pastoral landscapes and idylls.
Particularly notable was Tortelier’s deliberate use of silence, a pregnant silence that is also a form of music, causing some audience members to audibly gasp and keeping the musicians on edge as they awaited the conductor’s signal to blow, hit, touch, strum, or bow their instruments. Fermatas over notes were also held just long enough to incite the audience to lean in closer.
So in opening the concert with the Pastorale from L’Arlésienne’s Suite No. 2, Tortelier extended the cellos’ final vibrato before the upper strings’ pizzicato closed the movement. There was prescient clarity in the flute (Aaron Goldman) and harp (Adriana Horne) duet later joined by a saxophone (Paul Tucker) in the same suite’s minuet—which unlike the other movements is not prepared from Bizet’s incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s L’Arlésienne play and instead comes from his 1866 opera La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) after Sir Walter Scott’s eponymous novel.
“The Bizet is what in English they call the ‘bread and butter.’ It’s our music by nature,” Tortelier said, speaking in French in an interview before the first of three evening concerts that kicked off Thursday with a final performance Saturday. After a slightly loose beginning in the violins, the orchestra quickly found cohesion and crisp precision at relative ease with the visiting conductor. “What’s important is to have an osmosis between the conductor and the orchestra,” Tortelier explained, noting his similarities with “conductor brother” Noseda, who led the BBC Philharmonic from 2002 to 2011 in the wake of his French friend’s 12-year stint there. “I think we are rather similar in our way of making and feeling music.”
Tortelier first conducted the NSO in 1991—when cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was music director—for an all-French program of Ravel and Berlioz, returning in 1993 to perform with the finalists of the Leonard Rose Cello Competition. “At 75 years old, I hope I’ve made progress since the first time I came and that in 30 years I’ve matured and conduct better,” said Tortelier, who was principal conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra from 2016 to 2019. “But it has to be said, the orchestra has made considerable progress and the result is that I am spending an absolutely idyllic, wonderful week with the orchestra.”
Negrón’s affecting piece, which the NSO co-commissioned with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra where she serves as composer-in-residence, is inspired by Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s short poem of the same name and Arvo Pärt’s bell-like compositional technique. Harp, bells, and crotales—small, pitched cymbals—create wistful patterns echoed in shimmering strings that bounce from section to section above a dense organ line. A musical sunrise peeked through in contrast to eerie glissandos and ominous sirenlike strokes against a bass drone. “It’s also a very personal reflection on my own inability to be fully present in the moment and my constant desire to escape to a different time and place,” the Puerto Rican composer has said about the work. “I wanted to evoke a sense of longing and yearning for something that may never come.”
The evening’s tour de force undoubtedly came with Daphnis et Chloé (1909–1912), which is inextricably linked to Tortelier’s DNA as a conductor and which he dubs “the greatest score of French music.” He has played the impressionist masterpiece repeatedly throughout his career, including for a recording about 30 years ago with the Ulster Orchestra. In a rare treat, Tortelier presented the entire “choreographic symphony” originally commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes but since rarely staged as a full ballet production. Orchestras tend to perform the Suite No. 2 as a standalone piece. The scenario was adapted from an ancient Greek romance about a goatherder and a shepherdess.
Tortelier condensed or removed some passages he considered less effective for the orchestra setting. In one of his most idiosyncratic moves, he had the house lights almost completely dimmed during Part I’s closing Danse lente et mystérieuse (slow and mysterious dance), after a group of pirates kidnaps Chloé. The darkness replaced a choir of wordless voices that would not be particularly COVID-friendly at the start of Part Two, when the god Pan heads to the pirates’ camp to scare them away. Tortelier also removed the cowherd Dorcon’s part in his dance-off with Daphnis. The comically gauche moves, which end in the midst of orchestrated laughter, would have provided a humoristic counterpoint to Daphnis’s “light and gracious” gestures.
The densely layered colors of the dreamlike composition highlighted harp, flute, and violin solos, as well as an exquisite conversation between the woodwinds. Among the many surprises is the repeated use of the wind machine, or aeliophone, for art to truly imitate life. “Do you know of a more beautiful sound than a symphonic orchestra, honestly?” Tortelier asked. It’s a shame only about a quarter of the hall’s 2,465 seats were filled to hear.
The National Symphony Orchestra performed under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier October 28, 29 and 30, 2021, at the Kennedy Center. View the digital program here.