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Music review: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Anne Sofie von Otter at UCLA

March 11, 2010 |  1:24 pm

Los Angeles Philharmonic fans of a certain age might remember Carlo Maria Giulini’s cool, young Korean-born assistant conductor Myung-Whun Chung learning his craft here some 30 years ago. Since then, we’ve had to follow Chung’s path from afar as he worked his way through a succession of European posts. He also developed a close bond with Olivier Messiaen in the composer’s last years; the proof is in some really impressive Messiaen recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.

Now a veteran maestro at 57, Chung paid his old hometown a fleeting visit Wednesday night at Royce Hall with his Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France – which he has led since 2000. Having not seen Chung work since he left Los Angeles in the early `80s, it was startling to see how much he has grown as a baton technician. His motions are now sharp, precise and more varied, conveying authority and absolute control over an excellent, responsive French orchestra. 

Chung played directly to his ensemble’s strengths by working on core turf – an all-Ravel program that, contrary to what the stock program notes said, contained more than just the usual suites.

Rather than merely play the suite to “Ma Mère L’Oye,” Chung offered the whole half-hour ballet, with the familiar segments tied together seamlessly with ravishingly played short interludes.  Rather than limit himself to the popular Suite No. 2 from “Daphnis et Chloè,” Chung prefaced it with the not-often-performed Suite No. 1, which consists of a colorful, wind-machine-laced stretch from the middle of the ballet. 

There was also the song cycle “Shèhèrazade” with the renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, no less, languidly and dramatically characterizing every word. “La Valse” was the inevitable closer.

Throughout, the Orchestre Philharmonique sounded the way you would want a French orchestra to sound – with suave, subdued colors illuminated with clarity of texture, refined to a satin polish yet able to roar on command. Chung and company were at their most winning when settling into a languorously floating zone – “Beauty and the Beast”  from “Ma Mere L’Oye” and the last two songs from “Shèhèrazade” especially.  Sometimes the textures would clog under the pressure of a massive fortissimo, but Royce’s acoustics mostly treated the orchestra well.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Video: Orchestre Philharmonique Feb. 5 concert at the Cité de la Musique in Paris