It has been decades since any French orchestra has toured our state. This concert by the Orchestre National de Lyon presented through the Secrest Artists Series at Wake Forest University has been eagerly anticipated. There was a good turnout of music lovers in the capacious Wait Chapel for two French works – a rarity and a masterpiece – coupled with an American classic featuring violinist Gil Shaham. Music Director Leonard Slatkin conducted the performance.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Gabriel Fauré, when he composed Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie (1898), first as a piano duet before becoming his first orchestrated work. It was only published in 1975. The score reflects the influence of such Russians as Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin combined with such Debussy techniques as winding whole-tone scales and flattened seventh chords. Ravel’s exploration of orchestral color is evident throughout. The rustic Russian elements contributed the composer’s second expulsion from the strict regime of the conservatory.

Slatkin led a fine performance with a refined palette of color and dynamics. An intoxicating oboe solo evoked the aural of Arab folk instruments. Shimmering, diaphanous string tone was ravishing throughout the concert.

The Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (1939) by Samuel Barber (1910-81) seems to finally have joined the central repertoire. The excellent program notes by Aaron Grad reflected the latest scholarship surrounding the muddled myths about the original commissioning. It was commissioned by businessman Samuel Fels, a member of the Curtis Institute of Music’s board of trustees, for Iso Briselli, a child prodigy and student of Carl Flesch. Barber took an advance on the commission and traveled to Switzerland where he composed the first two movements. For years it was believed Briselli had complained the first two movements were not virtuosic enough while the non-stop brilliance of the finale was unplayable. Research has proved Briselli was pleased with the original two movements but rejected the last movement because he felt it was too lightweight. As part of a compromise, Barber kept the advance and Fels and Briselli relinquished all performing rights. The official premiere was given by Albert Spaulding with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy February 7, 1941. The current score reflects Barber’s 1948 revisions.

The concerto is in three movements. The first movement opens with a brief cadenza by the piano embedded within the orchestra, introducing the bare, brilliant octaves that eventually become the prominent theme of the movement. After rich development by the soloist and sections, a showy violin cadenza leads to a lyric coda. An extended oboe solo opens the bittersweet second movement, in which the violin enters spinning out Barber’s unique and understated but bittersweet longing. The short finale is a whirlwind and brilliant perpetuum mobile.

Slatkin led his superb Lyon musicians in an eloquent and moving account of the accompaniment. Co-principal oboist Clarisse Moreau’s extensive playing was entrancing. Woodwinds and brass contributed subtle touches. Violinist Shaham’s interpretation was simply breath-taking. His tone was warm and his application of dynamics was as meticulous as it was expressive. His playing if the first two movements was ravishing while his flawless articulation of the headlong dash of the finale was dazzling.

The revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 of Hector Berlioz (1803-69) can be traced back to the composer’s vivid responses to encountering a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and more particularly his falling madly in love (from afar) with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Ophelia. The 26-year old composer channeled excessive infatuation and despair into a five-movement symphony, modeled after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 with a dramatic tale of a disastrously failed romance instead of a tour of the country. The five movements are linked with one idée fixe theme. The first movement, “Daydreams-Passions,” depicts the artist’s flux of emotional highs and lows. The artist is portrayed among those dancing waltzes in the second movement, “A Ball.” The third movement, “Scene in the Country,” finds the artist contemplating a dialog between two shepherds (represented by English horn and oboe). In the fourth movement, the artist dreams that he has murdered his beloved, has been condemned, and is being led to the scaffold of the guillotine. The finale, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” is a tour de force of ground-breaking orchestration.

Slatkin led a magnificent and constantly enthralling interpretation of one of my favorite works. He made full use of the space of Wait Chapel. For the third movement’s ravishing woodwind dialog, English hornist Pascal Zamora, was onstage while principal oboist Jérôme Guichard responded from behind the right rear corner of the deep balcony. The vivid death knells of the finale had their spectral effect from being hidden in a rear stage stairwell for the raised level where the excellent Lyon percussion section was stationed. Every section of the orchestra played superbly.

The well-earned and prolonged standing ovation was rewarded with two encores drawn directly or loosely from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Harps and solo flute were exquisite in the “Intermezzo” that serves as a prelude to Act III. I suspect that Slatkin ought to be credited for the wild and hilarious farrago which followed.* Imagine that a Copland-like hoedown got somehow roughly blended with the Toreador’s march. A familiar refrain kept popping up between the strings really getting down. The bass drum player held forth on a washboard! I look forward to future American tours of the Orchestre National de Lyon who are racking up an impressive discography on the Naxos label.

*Joshua Rosenblum, in his review of the Lyon orchestra’s February 22 review in ZEALnyc, reports the second encore as “Carmen’s Hoedown.” “a rip-roaring set of variations” by Felix Slatkin, the conductor’s famous father, a distinguished conductor and chamber musician.