I have heard the Orchestre de Paris on tour in many cities - New York, Boston, Washington, Berlin - almost always on its best behavior. Yet I always find it is better to judge the general day-to-day quality of an orchestra on its home turf, as part of a regular concert series and with a guest conductor. When I heard this orchestra in Paris with Christoph von Dohn'anyi at the helm, I found considerable unevenness in the ensemble. The Orchestre de Paris is capable of great things, but it tends to deliver only when inspired by the conductor on the podium. It boasts remarkable first-chair players - I think particularly of the exceptional flutist, Michel Debost. Unfortunately, the Salle Pleyel is not noted for its acoustical splendors, despite a relatively recent overhaul. It tends to muddy the textures when the orchestra plays at anything nearing loud volumes.
When the members of the orchestra are out to show themselves off, as they once did in a moving Franck D Minor Symphony in Berlin, or a spectacular Berlioz ``Damnation de Faust'' in Washington, D.C. (both under the baton of music director Daniel Barenboim), they not only play brilliantly, but they obviously feel the music as well.
With Dohn'anyi, they did try to give the opening phrase of the Schubert Fifth Symphony the requisite lift and sparkle and lilted their way through the ``Menuetto.'' They really did try to rise to the grace and drama of the first movement of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. But only in the final three movements of that work did they fully respond to the specific sort of musicmaking Dohn'anyi was requesting of them and that he so memorably elicits from his own Cleveland Orchestra.
The Parisian ensemble was at its best in the French premi`ere of contemporary Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's ``Chain II: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra.'' The orchestra is asked to be a backdrop to the solo violin, creating a wash of moods and atmosphere, shifting from ethereal, sustained string playing, to agitated tremolos in lower strings and winds, then to smoldering brass-dominated sections that erupt in momentary explosions of great power.
The violin part, played superbly by Orchestre de Paris concertmaster Alain Moglia, consists of rather lovely flights of romantic-virtuoso exuberance that occasionally subside into moments of serene introspection. In all, Lutoslawski has composed an attractive addition to the violin-and-orchestra literature that should be popular with any accomplished violin soloist.