Under Denève, the Brussels Philharmonic makes an impressive stand at the Kravis Center

By David Fleshler

Stephane Deneve conducted the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Stéphane Denève conducted the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

The Brussels Philharmonic embarked on the U.S. segment of its North American tour Monday, having arrived from frigid Ottawa to perform at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Under its formidable music director Stéphane Denève, the orchestra brought both the familiar and the unusual to the hall in a concert of predominantly French works. The musicians get to remain in the Florida sunshine for a few more days, performing again Wednesday at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale before heading north for concerts that will culminate in a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

With the lesser-known European orchestras, one never knows what to expect. But the Brussels ensemble, founded in 1935, is a good one. Strings played with precision, with textures that range from transparent to luxuriant. Although the brass blared a bit at times, that section and the woodwinds played with a rich palette of tones in the colorfully orchestrated works on the program.

The musicians had clearly rehearsed to the hilt for their tour, delivering precise attacks and virtually note-perfect performances. But there was nothing drilled or prosaic about the music-making. Denève—who also serves as principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and will become music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this fall—drew lively, sensitive and tonally rich performances from the Belgian ensemble.

Denève has made a specialty of the music of the contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson, and he chose to open the concert with the composer’s Flammenschrift, or flaming writing, a musical tribute to Beethoven.

After an opening of piercing clarity in the strings, the work comes off as a non-stop thunderstorm, with flashes of winds and brass over a turbulent sea of strings. The narrative was one of relentless action, with the music going from forte to fortissimo and back to forte, the forward momentum aided by Denève’s supple conducting. In the brief lyric middle section, there was an eye-of-the-hurricane feel to the calm, as the winds played melodies over a softer, but still busy, accompaniment in the strings.

The grinding, hard-driving music returned, with a menacing trombone melody and an abrupt ending, providing an invigorating start to the evening. Denève, who has a gracious stage manner and an easy rapport with the musicians, held up the score at the end to let the composer share in the applause.

Nikolaj Znaider. Photo: Lars Gundersen

Nikolaj Znaider. Photo: Lars Gundersen

Next came Max Bruch’s beloved but hopelessly overplayed—especially in South Florida—Violin Concerto No. 1. If you must witness a performance of this work for the umpteenth time, let it be played by the Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider. He brought to the performance a seamless bow arm, a formidable technique and an engagingly old-fashioned melodic style, using the sort of slides from note to note that might have been made by a violinist 75 years ago.

From the unusually solemn tone of the opening, Znaider played the first movement in a dramatic manner. In the dark, climactic chords that punctuate the movement, he brought a majestic bow arm or slashed at them as if he were playing a percussion instrument. He made the ascending arpeggios toward the end of the movement the dramatic high point they should be, refusing to allow the orchestra’s crescendo to swallow up his sound, as he drew immense volume from his Guarnerius del Gesu violin.

The most affecting playing came in the Adagio. He played the opening in a unusually quiet manner, with a sweet but modest tone that avoided overwhelming the music with excessive vibrato. There were sudden, intimate pianissimos, a sense of exaltation as he played the melody punctuated with runs and great nobility of tone as he played the theme high on the instrument’s top string. There was a little vagueness to his playing in the virtuoso passages of the last movement, when he must play fast ascending doubled notes, but he brought to the movement a rollicking energy.

Under Denève, the orchestra was a sensitive accompanist, with ghostly wind chords and a big 19th century Germanic tone for the symphonic passages, such as the closing of the first movement and the second theme of the finale.

Another Denève specialty is the music of the French composer Albert Roussel, whose sensual, imaginatively orchestrated music bears some similarity to that of his contemporary, Ravel. The Belgians performed Roussel’s Suite No. 2 from his ballet Bacchus et Ariadne.

In the Prelude, spare orchestral forces—a bassoon, clarinet, a solo viola—performed on a pillow of soft chords, creating an atmosphere of erotic allure. The music gained force, taking on a grand sweep of passion and tension reminiscent of Wagner, with a wild 20th-century edge at the top in winds and brass. The ensemble played with a real feel for this sensuous music— with a flowing style and smooth satiny surfaces that for all the precision of the playing never felt note-bound. Denève led the ensemble through the wild, hard-driving rhythms of the Bacchanale to a climactic ending.

The program ended with Ravel’s La Valse. High shimmering phrases in strings, brilliant fragments of clarinet, bassoon and trumpet and a feel for the work’s irony and nostalgia marked the performance. Denève led the ensemble through the waltz’s fracturing to wild, swooping tones in the brass to its chaotic ending.

As an encore, the orchestra gave a boisterous performance of the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2

Stéphane Denève conducts the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. The program includes Connesson’s Flammenschrift, Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet and the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Nikolaj Znaider. browardcenter.org; 954-462-0222

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Tue Mar 12, 2019
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