Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

A Small Oboe Festival: François Leleux and the Sydney Symphony Play Bach, Ravel and Mozart

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Ravel with Maurice and Nelly Delage and Suzanne Roland-Manuel. Photo by Roland-Manuel?
Ravel with friends Maurice and Nelly Delage and Suzanne Roland-Manuel. Photo by Roland-Manuel?

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 2 March 2012

J. S. Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066
Maurice Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin
Mozart – Oboe Concerto in C Major, K 314

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
François Leleux – oboe-director

Whoever says that the Sydney Opera House doesn’t function should visit on a day like last Friday morning. On this fairly typical day, there were six separate shows, concerts and plays scheduled — it is not an opera house at all but a true complex of theaters and concert halls. Neither the large group of Japanese schoolgirls touring the building, nor the long queue of people after tickets to the Olivia Newton-John concert that evening, nor the individual tourists looking around and photographing, nor the people for the Sydney Symphony concert (the Olivia Newton-John fans didn’t know what they missed) who arrived early for the morning tea set out for us under the vaulted lunes of the concert hall foyer, got in one another’s way. It was crowded for sure, and they could use a few more lady’s rooms, but miraculously there was room to move. The building works!

Leleux had put together a program of classics, well known but in playing he brought them a freshness and bright enthusiasm as if encountering them for the first time. He played, in both senses of the word, in an unlabored way even in the more difficult sections, even while his technique proved his mastery of the instrument and all the work and practice that entailed. His honest and lively playing was infectious. The musicians seemed not like performers set up on stage and weighted by everyone’s eyes and ears and expectations set on them, but they gave the impression of artists playing music for its own sake in private, the listeners seemed not exactly an audience but more invitees to share in the experience, the exploration of the music anew.

An interesting note in the program states that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra had not played Bach’s First Orchestral Suite since the 1970’s, giving as a reason the rise of the early music movement and the proliferation of good period instrument orchestras with musicians trained in the period techniques. Even if it is not exactly the same piece Bach created, it is still worth playing and hearing as a new interpretation using what is available, as Bach used what was available to him three centuries ago. If one has three fine oboists and a fine bassoonist, and strings, even if they are steel, and avoided all Bach wrote for the oboe, it would be a sad deprivation. Then again gut strings should be doable, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made the Vienna Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw use for this kind of music (and Australia has more than enough cats!).

The Bach Suite was given a large string sections and three oboe soloists as well as the bassoon, and a harpsichord and two basses for the continuo. The violins for the most part were mousy, soft and smoothly combined, but the cellos and two basses had a more distinct clarity and texture. For the final Passepieds, the violins were drawn out a bit more with more texture, but for the most part offered a fine, soft carpet for the wind soloists to walk on, however fleet of foot. Leleux’ phrasing was quite broad and long, always coming from the music, and was vocal in an ideal kind of way, a bit more like the French language than German, his playing equally serene and intense. The notes were not exactly even, but subtly accented, with the longer arc of the phrases very clear. The beauty of these phrases, very bird-like, natural and unself-concious complemented his beautiful mellifluous tone, but he was also capable of a greatly varied tone, from borderline flute-like to something more saxophonic which here he used in a more nuanced way, but this range came in handy for the Mozart Concerto. His legato was beautifully flowing while his tongued staccato was very crisp, distinct, the short notes vividly expressive of perhaps crossness at times, but capable of other attitudes and moods as well. Leleux sort of conducted with his whole body as he played, often half rising from his seat and turning to all sides, in chamber music style, despite the large string contingent. The two other oboists, Diana Doherty and David Papp and bassoonist Matthew Wilkie, sitting next to him in a crescent in front of the orchestra, were evidently excited to be playing with him, and while retaining their contrasting styles to give a rich texture to the contrapuntal ensembles, they seemed to get carried along in Leleux’ singing, naturalistic approach.

Maurice Ravel and Maurice Delage in Monfort, 1930.
Maurice Ravel and composer friend and former pupil Maurice Delage in Monfort, 1930.

The Ravel piece showed Leleux’ conducting abilities: he did not play himself but conducted standing in front without a score. He gave the music some of the same singing quality, with bright clear colors in the small ensemble of varied instruments. The music had élan, it sat up in a satisfying way as he looked deeper into the agreeable sounds and melodies, looking to the more veiled qualities which were less obvious. It was very much alive and Leleux showed that it is much more than “funeral music,” as it is sometimes labeled. This piece was the first from outside Germany played this year by the SSO and conducted by a frenchman with a second-nature intuition for the music, it was set off even more by the contrast.

Who but Mozart could write a two-note motif expressive of so much, as he does in his Oboe Concerto? Leleux, standing up front with the other oboes in their usual place behind the violas, now playing, now conducting, seemed to bring deep understanding and experience to even so simple a motif. Standing in front gave him additional presence and leeway for great subtlety. He at times lowered his instrument, at others, for instance over the climax of an important phrase would raise it and point it toward the audience, even scanning across the hall with it, so the sound reached the listener directly, as he delved into the possibilities of the oboe’s nimbleness and its versatile tone, strange, other-wordly, somewhat viola da gamba-esque. He generously played long exhausting cadenzas in each of the three movements, playing them with great thought and a mind for the concerto as a whole including what the orchestra had to say, rather than merely displaying virtuosity. The slow movement had great pathos. In the large hall his cadenza reverberated gently, almost to the point of an echo of his distinct tone, to give a feeling of loneliness in the vastness of its sound-space along with everything else in the music, with all the added poignancy when the orchestra returned. His sense of drama, of theatre, in the music, very important to Mozart, was confirmed in his encore: the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute. The oboe, with its definiteness, imperturbable but with a degree of vulnerability, capable of, but in no way restricted to, a very pure tone, suits that aria well and Leleux’ interpretation, including his conducting of the orchestral introduction, was strongly convincing.

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