Daniele Gatti and the Orchestre National de France Perform Debussy, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky

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Violinist Julian Rachlin (Photo by Julia Wesely)

Debussy, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Daniele Gatti, music director
Julian Rachlin, violin

How does one explain the paltry attendance at Sunday afternoon’s Orchestre National de France concert? Forty-two percent of the seats in the orchestra section of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall were still unsold two hours before curtain, according to the Kennedy Center’s online ticketing site. The house management closed down the second tier of the hall and asked ticketholders to fill in the yawning rows of empty seats in the lowest level. One patron was overheard to grouse, “But I hate it down there!” A few hardy and rebellious souls were still spotted, though, in the farthest reaches of the hall. I hadn’t seen this venue this empty since the National Symphony Orchestra’s final Friday afternoon concert back in 2012.

My colleague Anne Midgette recently wrote a review in which she lamented the small audience (“a mere handful of people”) for what turned out to be a terrific concert of new music at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Midgette laid part of the blame, at least, at the feet of a neglectful Atlas administration that doesn’t seem to “care… much whether anybody attends.” The kind of new downtown music on that program doesn’t sell itself and won’t simply find its own audience at venue like the Atlas.

That was certainly not the issue at play with the Orchestre National concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center and featured a standard — maybe too standard — repertory program of Debussy, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. Indeed, the concert suggested deeper problems with the core audience for classical music. It doesn’t seem enough, these days, to present an excellent, but not world-beating, orchestra, led by a highly respected, but not rockstar, conductor (Daniele Gatti), featuring an impressive, but not especially famous, soloist (Lithuanian violinist Julian Rachlin), and performing a sure-fire crowd-pleaser (Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony). The cautious programming likely did not stand out in a crowded concert calendar to classical music aficionados, while the lack of name recognition prevented broader appeal.

So, other than that, how was the concert? I had intended to point out certain shortcomings in the orchestra’s sound: the variable quality of some of the winds and brass, and the lack of the luxuriant sheen Gatti typically gets from his string sections. The opening flute solo in Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” sounded a little thin and harsh, while the strings were warm but never quite ethereal. In the slow of movement of the Tchaikovsky, the solo horn was blunt and plain-spoken and had a noticeable bobble or two later in the movement.

Yet listening to the same program performed at Carnegie Hall on January 28 via Medici.tv’s streaming service, I came away with an undeniably more favorable impression. Bathed in the warm glow of the fabled Carnegie Hall acoustics, the Debussy took on a more sensual and exotic quality, with the flute blending mellifluously into a far more polished and airy orchestral sound. The solo horn in the Tchaikovsky, while still a little utilitarian sounding, was nonetheless more burnished. I can’t help shake the impression that listeners in the dry, unflattering acoustics of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall sometimes only get the outlines of an interpretation. On the podium in D.C., Gatti judged balances astutely, brought out inner detail with precision and refinement, and was convincing in his pacing, phrasing, and structural insight. But what was sometimes missing in the hall was the sheer beauty of the sound.

What was undeniable, though, about the Washington concert was the epic sweep and blistering intensity of Rachlin and Gatti’s reading of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. An intensely introspective and hauntingly restrained opening movement gave way to the manic energy of the Scherzo, with Rachlin playing with unbridled aggression, bite, and swagger. The passacaglia movement took on a monumental quality, as Gatti and the orchestra laid down a powerful bass line while Rachlin offered playing of piercing beauty and sustained concentration. The cadenza, which serves as the finger-busting bridge to Shostakovich’s finale, was all violent struggle and terror and led into a closing movement that was even more tortured in its manic aggression. Some violinists make their virtuosity sound easy and effortless; Rachlin is not one of those violinists, and his performance was all the more hair-raising for it.

In the Tchaikovsky Fifth, Gatti established the low strings as the foundation for his sound in the symphony, which was dark, weighty, yet refined. Gatti took time to sculpt phrases and savor the familiar melodies and surges of sound. In lesser hands, the very deliberate pushing and pulling at the line could have sounded fussy or stilted, but Gatti never lost sight of the overall musical architecture and sense of forward momentum. It was a persuasive performance of a warhorse that almost justified its programming as the centerpiece of the orchestra’s world tour. Let’s hear something less familiar, next time, and maybe you’ll draw a bigger crowd.

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