‘La Belle France’ evokes French elegance, past and present

Oct. 19, 2012, 12:40 a.m.

France: the land of baguettes and berets, fine wine and fancy boulevards. Sophisticated and refined, the popular image of France is at once enticing and unattainably enigmatic. This was the France depicted in Sunday’s performance (aptly titled “La Belle France”) by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO), conducted by Benjamin Simon. The melodies of Mozart (the only non-native composer represented), Jean Françaix, François Couperin and Maurice Ravel graced the stage of Dinkelspiel Auditorium for an utterly charming afternoon of symphonic music that would make any Francophile swoon.


Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D Major, colloquially known as “Paris,” opened the concert with evocative images of the bustling 18th-century Paris in which Mozart briefly worked. This stately, elegant work found its strength in a rhapsodic wind section that was, in fact, a consistent highlight of the entire concert.


The Symphony was followed by Françaix’s Divertissement for Bassoon and String Orchestra, which featured the fabulous Karla Ekholm, SFCO’s principal bassoonist, on the titular instrument. Her playing was as feisty as the glitter speckled in her hair, and she performed the conversational bursts between bassoon and orchestra with lithe ease. Each movement of the Divertissment ended with a surprise upbeat that noticeably delighted the orchestra and audience alike. Ekholm’s rich, emotive playing was reflected intently on her face and in her body movement, which seemed to say that there could be no greater pleasure for her than complete immersion in the music.


Couperin’s “Les Gouts Réunis” had a triumphant quality broadcast through the confident exclamations of a trumpet, while Ravel’s Impressionist “Le tombeau de Couperin,” written as a tribute to fallen comrades in World War I, grew tonally darker with the back and forth of harp and winds.


The selections were a continuum of French spirit, reflecting the blend of delicacy, eccentricity and republicanism unique to “le beau pays.” I could feel myself transported to a Paris of yesterday, swept up in the grandeur of the Bourbon court or basking in the elegance of the Champs-Élysées. The only thing lacking in the program was variety: in what could have been the soundtrack to a leisurely picnic, the selections were mostly similar in composition, style and refinement. There was little angst or cigarettes in the France of this concert. Maybe this was for the best, as the audience was, to my dismay, on average 60 or over.


The execution of “La Belle France” was tight and polished, and it was clear the orchestra derived substantial joy from playing. There are few things more rewarding than watching people performing and sharing their passions, and this was no exception. In fact, the aura radiating from the stage was so cheerful as to be comical: the conductor revealed lime green socks peeking out from his suit with every bow, and at one point, the bassist donned a beret and entertained the audience with his perfect French. The result? C’était tout charmant!

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