The NC Symphony‘s Summerfest season continued with a celebration of some of the most revered French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Ravel, Debussy, and Fauré. Vibrant guest conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, currently with the Seattle Symphony, led the musically shimmering program. The program was complemented perfectly by the cool summer breeze that blew through the Koka Booth Amphitheatre and cut through the humidity. The program began with several selections from Massenet’s Le Cid, a ballet suite from the opera of the same name. Although the opera is set in Spain, the music remains distinctly French, with playful countermelodies that add depth to the texture. The woodwind section stood out in this work, especially the flute passages in the “Castillane” movement (Anne Whaley Laney, Mary E. Boone, and Elizabeth Anderson Lunsford) and the elegant bassoon solo in the “Aubade” (Wenmin Zhang). A more melancholy foil to Le Cid, although no less beautiful, was Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50. In keeping with the traditional slow, processional sound of a pavane, this interpretation is heavily legato, with a haunting air of mystery. However, with this mystery comes a sense of romance that was definitely aided by the outdoor setting (indeed, Fauré’s orchestration was originally intended to be performed at summer concerts).

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 brought the audience a wonderful artist by the name of George Fu, performing as part of the Curtis Institute on Tour. The concerto begins with a solo cadenza that outlines the tonality and fragments of melodies to come, which is slightly less usual than an orchestral introduction. In fact, the first movement contains many sections where the piano plays alone – all the better to experience Fu’s delicate precision. The second movement, typically a slower tempo in most orchestral works, is actually a joyful scherzo, wherein a dance-like melody is supported with strong bass figures in the piano and orchestra. Fast tempos continue with the Presto movement, fiery and vivacious, in which the soloist and orchestra play more simultaneous music than in the previous movements. In this movement especially, Broseta took great care with the dynamic rise and fall of the orchestra that gained momentum as the movement sped to a triumphant close.

Another delightful French ballet suite was featured next. Ravel’s magical Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) visits several picturesque children’s fairytales such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Tom Thumb,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Each of the seven movements is whimsical yet tinged with nostalgic sadness that is relatable to all ages. A variety of percussion is used to conjure imagery of each tale – “Empress of the Pagodas” features flurries of celesta and bells playing pentatonic scales and the tam-tam. Another pavane, this time “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” features a plaintive melody played by one instrument at a time over restless, undulating harmonies that are quintessentially French. Ravel’s radiant, lush orchestration brings the suite to a close with the final movement, “The Enchanted Garden,” depicting the scene where Sleeping Beauty is awakened by Prince Charming to live happily ever after.

Near the end of the concert, just as night fell, was the perfect time to feature several French classics – Debussy’s dreamy “Clair de Lune” and Saint-Saëns’ wild Bacchanale (from the opera Samson and Delilah). These contrasting works delighted the audience, and closed a lovely evening in France.

Summerfest continues on June 24. For details, see our calendar.