Love was in the air Friday night at Festival del Sole.
Stéphane Denève, the outstanding maestro at the helm of the Scottish National Orchestra, was conducting his first concert as a married man. His bride and the couple’s parents were ensconced in a Lincoln Theater box, basking in the glow of l’amour toujours.
Featured soloist for the eagerly anticipated program was the conductor’s best man, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, one of the world’s greatest pianists.
With repertoire handpicked by the conductor — Gabriel Fauré representing homeland of both conductor and soloist; Edvard Grieg, a Scandinavian salute to his Swedish bride; and Sergei Prokofiev to make the visiting Russian National Orchestra players feel at home — well, it was as lovely as it gets.
Nuptials were hosted by one of the festival’s sponsors, Tatania and Gerret Copeland at their Bouchaine Vineyard, and guests, an orchestra ensemble and conductor Antonio Pappano had to be transported to a Carneros hilltop.
As important was just the right program to celebrate the event and mark a new beginning for the conductor and his bride, a statuesque Swedish beauty named Åsa Masters.
What better way to celebrate than have the masterful Thibaudet play one of the most popular piano concertos ever written — gloriously and flawlessly, we hasten to add — and feature the ravishing, romantic ballet suite by Prokofiev from “Romeo and Juliet.”
This is Thibaudet’s first performance in wine country in more than two decades. The former Paris Conservatory student of Aldo Ciccolini won the Young Concert Artists of New York auditions at age 18. Not long after, he performed with the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra and, a few seasons later, was guest artist for a Chamber Music in Napa Valley concert.
He continues to perform with the world’s leading orchestras and travels extensively, leaving Napa Valley Saturday morning so he could rehearse for his next engagement in Paris today. Among his collaborators in performances and recordings are soprano Renée Fleming, mezzo-sopranos Cecilia Bartoli and Angelika Kirchschlager, violinist Joshua Bell and the Rosetti String Quartet. He has made more than 30 recordings for Decca Records that include forays into jazz, including tributes to Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. Thibaudet has recorded the Grieg “Piano Concerto in A Minor.”
For this consummate reading, Thibaudet combined tenderness with majesty, appropriate sweetness with virtuosic sheen. This is not an easy piece to play, not only for the performer but for the audience, too, which tends to dismiss it at an old war-horse. But the guest artist approached this buoyant, engaging concerto with fresh ears. As a result, it seemed like we were discovering something new, beginning with the descending piano passage that opens the piece and heretofore made us think the MGM lion was about to roar.
With Denève and the Russian National Orchestra providing lilting, yet powerful support, Thibaudet offered an exquisite reading with ample warmth and brilliance. While the performance was the most elegant I’ve ever heard, it did not leave out any of the score’s dramatic tension.
Denève and Thibaudet struck an appropriate balance. Graceful melodies and full-bodied romantic sentiment, with crescendos so beautifully done at the finale, Grieg never sounded better.
The conductor also provided us with an impetuously romantic reading of scenes from the “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score. I’d bet he has a special affinity for this Prokofiev work, considering he included it for this special tribute to his bride.
Characterization was strong throughout. There are a number of wonderful serene moments, like the ethereal introduction of the flute melody — thanks to principal flutist Maxim Rubtsov — in the opening segment (“Montagues and Capulets”). Some movements had an engaging feeling of the dance, and the light, graceful articulation in “Juliet — The Young Girl” was a delight.
Highlights for this audience member were the “Balcony Scene” and “Romeo at Juliet’s Before Parting,” which brought playing of great intensity, with a ravishing response from the Russian orchestra’s strings.
Denève elicited exemplary atmospheric playing, with virtuosity and dramatic fire, from the responsive orchestra — all the while remaining resoundingly, well, romantic.
The program opened with Denève and the Russian National Orchestra’s highly refined and beautifully played account of Fauré’s “Suite from Pelléas and Méllisande.” Outstanding in every way, there was pervasive tenderness and delicacy in this offering. I suspect it had something to do with the romance at hand.
We were captivated by it all — the storybook wedding, the affection displayed by conductor and soloist, the musicians’ winsome ways. By the end of the evening, I suspect we were all a little love-struck.