Much has been written about the national characteristics of orchestras, most of it on the level of casual stereotypes rather than serious analysis. Here to open the ears of doubters about French orchestras--and to buoy admirers--is Lorin Maazel and the Orchestre National de France, back almost three years to the day since their last local appearance.
Maazel's program, Sunday evening at Royce Hall, UCLA, was certainly a paragon of typecasting--familiar snippets from Berlioz, Debussy and Roussel, plus Messiaen's "Les offrandes oubliees." An encore? The Farandole from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" music.
There was variety and abundant opportunities for orchestral glory on that agenda, if not much occasion for probing from the podium. The weightiest piece was the opening Messiaen, and there Maazel opted for detachment, divorcing the sounds from the composer's mystical passion in a cool, quick and impersonal performance.
Maazel reserved his emotional and psychological insights for the love music from Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette," in an expansively developed account of great sincerity and sonic beauty. He prefaced it with a gossamer Queen Mab scherzo and followed it with Romeo's soulful agitations and the Capulet's party, both clearly defined.
Parties and processions served Maazel and company well Sunday, with crisp, colorful, thoroughly physical performances of the Second Suite from Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariane," and Fetes from Debussy's "Nocturnes." If their abilities in moody soundscapes needed testimony, there was an evocative Nuages from "Nocturnes."
The orchestra proved itself again an alert, idiosyncratic and unanimous ensemble of balance and sheen, capable of a great noise and subtle murmurs. Occasionally, it sounded a bit thin on top, and thick around the middle, but the sectional and individual solos were brilliantly realized, particularly the distinguished lyric efforts of principal violist Tasso Adamopoulous.