By Lawrence Budmen

Performances of French orchestral music have always been special when a native French conductor is on the podium. The glistening strings, light woodwinds, and burnished but never harsh brass that are so characteristic of 19th and 20th century French instrumental composition have been best served by such masters of the baton as Charles Munch, Ernest Ansermet, Jean Martinon, Pierre Boulez, and even such lesser luminaries as Pierre Dervaux and Georges Pretre.

Add Yan Pascal Tortelier to that list. On April 20, 2002 at Miami Beach's Lincoln Theatre, Tortelier conducted the New World Symphony in an all French program. Tortelier has a clear, flawless conducting technique that brings out the best in his musicians. Throughout the concert, the orchestral playing had brilliance and precision. There was an idiomatic lightness and joy in his music making. The music seemed to dance under his baton. The program was exceptionally well chosen and avoided overplayed orchestral warhorses.

Maurice Ravel's "Trio in A Minor" of 1914 was originally written for piano, violin and cello. It was in that chamber version that Tortelier first played and recorded the score with his sister and his father - the great cellist Paul Tortelier. Ravel himself spoke of the "trumpet" effects in the music, which has always suggested a larger, richer instrumental texture. Yan Pascal Tortelier's orchestration of the work is a triumph. The music's Gallic charm, Basque rhythms, and oriental exoticism are basked in shimmering string textures, scintillating combinations of flute and harp, and wonderfully colorful writing for piano, celesta and xylophone that could have been created by Ravel himself. The lush string texture of the third movement Passacaille: Tres Large is particularly striking and beautiful. Tortelier led the New World players in a brilliant performance. The rich string playing was glorious and the winds a delight to the ear.

It is rare that an orchestral adaptation of chamber music succeeds as an artistic statement. Tortelier's Ravel adaptation joins Luciano Berio's enlargement of Brahms' "Clarinet Sonata" and Rudolf Barshai's orchestration of Shostakovich's "String Quartet No. 10" in being faithful to the original, yet enhancing the music. This colorful elaboration of the Ravel "Trio in A Minor" deserves to be taken up by other orchestras and conductors. It is a superb reinvention of a musical masterpiece.

At age 86, Henri Dutilleux remains one of France's most prolific composers. His best compositions (the "Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3" and the "Cello Concerto" and "Violin Concerto" -- written for Isaac Stern) are among the most original and engrossing works of the second half of the 20th century.

His "Concerto for Cello and Orchestra" - "Tout Un Monde Lontain" ("A Whole Distant World") was created for two of the last century's most extraordinary artists - the cellist Mistislav Rostropovich and the conductor Igor Markevitch. While the concerto's sound world may occasionally suggest Debussy, Berg or Stravinsky, it cannot be mistaken for their music. This is the work of a composer with a singular musical voice. The score's five continuous movements contain stretches of atonality and dissonance, yet it is the haunting quality of the solo cello writing that truly characterizes this unique score. While there are violent orchestral outbursts, it is the troubled, quiet tone of the two slow movements that are the music's heart. Many diverse compositional elements make up this work, but the musical discourse emerges as a coherent whole and a 20th century masterpiece.

So much of the cello writing in Dutilleux's concerto is written in the instrument's upper register, which is difficult for the soloist to sustain. The solo line is almost constant for the 30 minute duration of the score. The writing demands a great cello virtuoso with perfect command of the instrument, yet provides few opportunities for glittering solo display in the 19th century sense.

Neither Dutilleux nor conductor Tortelier could ask for a more superb soloist than Lynn Harrell. After more than three decades on the concert stage, Harrell remains one of the world's great cellists and a consummate musician. The difficulties of the concerto were handled with ease. From the very first notes, the rich, dark, full throated cello tones were unmistakable - this could only be Lynn Harrell. Moreover, there was real elegance and an aristocratic sense of phrasing in every mercurial turn of this fascinating score. Tortelier and the orchestra were vibrant, exciting collaborators in a memorable performance.

As an encore, Harrell rewarded the enthusiastic audience with a solo transcription of the Melodie from " Orfeo and Eurydice" by Gluck. The deep throated cello tones were a joy to hear. The sensitive rendering of the 18th century classical style was superb. Harrell remains one of the cello's true greats.

While Albert Roussel's "Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane", Opus 43, has many similarities in its orchestration to Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe", it is a glittering orchestral showpiece that is all too rarely played. Roussel is one of France's most unjustly neglected composers and it was wonderful to hear his music conducted so idiomatically by Tortelier. He brought out all of the music's languorous passion and surging, rhythmical excitement. The violin and cello soloists were superb.

With many American orchestras and at least one major Canadian ensemble searching for new conductors, Yan Pascal Tortelier is a first class musician and a master of orchestral tone color. Once again the New World Symphony has presented an exciting and stimulating concert!


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