"When the language is music," says conductor Myung-Whun Chung, "it's silly to think of national identity."
A surprising statement, perhaps, coming from the music director of the Paris-based Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. But Chung, who's led the orchestra since May 2000, and has been making music in Paris for two decades, rejects romanticized notions of national schools of music-making. "A French orchestra will make a French sound even if we try not to make it," he observes. "When you have 120 French musicians onstage, their training and experience will always give a French flavor." But instead of nostalgically seeking to recapture "golden age" historical styles, Chung feels that "a musician needs to look for the composer's unique personality, to find Schumann in Schumann's music, or Ravel's personality in his music, which is different from Debussy's."
Chung and the Philharmonique, currently on their first U.S. tour together, will present all-French programs at Carnegie Hall on November 21 and 22, part of the Hall's season-long Focus On: French Music. Their concerts center on the music of Olivier Messiaen‹two early works, the meditative, darkness-and-light L'Ascension (1933), and the massive, delirious, joyful symphony Turangalîla (1948)‹alongside major works by Saint-Saëns, Debussy, and Ravel.
Born in Korea into a family of musicians‹his sister Kyung-Wha Chung is one of the leading violinists of her generation‹Chung is a living case of where a musician's affinities carry more artistic weight than his nationality.
The conductor worked closely with Messiaen for several recordings, including his benchmark Turangalîla‹a recording many feel to be definitive for our era. Messiaen, recalls Chung, "was a gentle and positive person, and he'd give you the feeling your performance was the best he'd ever heard. He never had a negative thing to say. He'd help me feel the elusive spirit of the piece."
The composer would also weigh in on such fundamental matters as tempo, encouraging the performers at a rehearsal with "wonderful, just wonderful" and, adding slyly, "I liked that, very good, but maybe it could be just a little slower."
"He was a great influence on me as a musician," Chung says. "If I got nothing else out of my career, my experiences with Messiaen would be worth it."
The Philharmonique, too, has a special Messiaen affinity, keeping his symphonic works in its repertoire. The composer dedicated Un sourire, an homage to Mozart and one of his last works, to the ensemble, which later recorded it.
Joining the Philharmonique for the November 21 concert will be French pianist Hélène Grimaud as soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. Grimaud, a cosmopolitan artist who lives in America, is also a friend to the orchestra: Together they recently toured Japan and Korea, and have concert dates planned for Munich and Vienna.
The orchestra's history‹under various names and functions‹goes back to 1937 as the Orchestre Radio-symphonique, directed by Eugène Bigot, who held that post until his death in 1965.
By the 1970s, France's entire state-run television and radio broadcasting administrations were reorganized. One division of the former Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF) became Radio-France, which produces more music in France than any other organization. In 1976, amid this reorganization, the Nouvelle Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France was born all over again, consolidating 138 musicians from the various ORTF ensembles. (The "new" prefix was shed in 1989.)
This coincided with the return to France of Pierre Boulez‹composer, conductor, and philosopher-king of French modernism‹back in his homeland to found the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/ Musique (IRCAM, his center for computer music research) after leading the New York Philharmonic and London's BBC Symphony. Using his considerable clout, Boulez advised Radio France to create a flexible ensemble to cover a broad repertoire, commission new music on a regular basis, and keep looking forward in artistic matters.
And Boulez continues on the scene. Chung performed the French premiere of Boulez' Notation No. 7 at his inaugural concert. The Philharmonique will present a Boulez festival in 2005, with Chung and the composer sharing programs.
As ever, every concert at home‹the orchestra will soon be resident in Paris's Salle Pleyel‹is broadcast nationally on Radio France. "With a radio orchestra," Chung says, "we rehearse more and perform less than other orchestras. We'll often prepare for a week to play one concert. It's a luxury."
Chung and his Philharmonique have also begun recording together: concertos by senior French composer Henri Dutilleux on EMI recordings and several of music by Messiaen and Beethoven, for Deutsche Grammophon.
"The Philharmonique has a very clear voice," says Chung, "a combination of brilliance and warmth. They are unique in France."
Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.