The Atlantic Ocean has rarely seemed wider for classical music artists: Since 9/11, nearly a generation of great European musicians have been available to Americans mainly via recordings and YouTube. Their numbers are growing. So is the artistic-stature factor.
During a short, pre-Christmas week in Paris, I heard one performance after another of artists barely known in the United States. They included significant, even towering figures, such as conductors Mikko Franck (L'Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France) and Jérémie Rhorer (Don Giovanni at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées) and pianist Adam Laloum (again at Champs Élysées). Violinist David Grimal ambushed me on recordings. Those are only the top four.
Even when they are scheduled for rare appearances in this country, such artists may have visa-related problems, such as the sort that reportedly led to the cancellation of violinist Augustin Dumay's Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia concert in 2015.
When such matters are properly ironed out, the artist may somehow escape notice. Major figures such as French pianist Cédric Tiberghien may land at, say, New York City's Frick Collection - adored by listeners but unacknowledged by the overworked media. And the window for acceptance is narrow: When a European artist gets a less-than-stellar review, a U.S. career can be set back five years. So why bother at all when Europe loves you?
After only sporadic U.S. appearances amid a distinguished career singing baroque opera in Europe, Sandrine Piau, 51, is making a U.S. recital tour that stops at the Kimmel Center on Feb. 14, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. You'd like to think talent always wins out. And it can - with added diligence. After some false starts, 49-year-old French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras (in concert at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on Jan. 27) has established himself among the best of his generation, thanks to excellent recordings and nearly annual U.S. visits, plus well-connected admirers such as Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The catch-22 is that success at home makes European stars harder to get over here. As they build a European career (for which they do not necessarily need the big splash of a major competition victory), their datebooks fill up quickly, domestic responsibilities start multiplying, and, as they're now so hard to get, U.S. representation is tougher than ever to land.
Don't we have enough fine artists here? European friends have asked me that. But true talent is never interchangeable. One artist is never really "equal to" another. Should we be denied chances to hear these singular, unrepeatable voices? Why should they be denied our attention? The world is always searching for "the next [name of artist here]." And some of them don't find their way here often or at all.
Franck, 37, is often said to be the next Carlos Kleiber. Every few years, the Finnish conductor is "rediscovered" and marveled over, only for him to slip from view. His behavior may have played a role. He has repeatedly cancelled major U.S. orchestra appearances due to illness and has feuded with cultural authorities over perceived anti-artistic policies.
The only concert of his I could find in mid-December was a midweight Christmas program with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. He's a hearty but unglamorous presence: Short and rotund, he often conducts sitting down due to past physical ailments but slips off his seat, standing without a podium at eye level with his musicians. Up come his arms, and they're those of a great ballerina. That's where his artistry seems to live. He acknowledges applause with a friendly but quick nod. Yet adoring audiences are heard reacting to his performances as though the home team just won the World Cup.
Among his recordings, his Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") is truly a postcard from the abyss, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is a subtle study in orchestral color, and Wagner's Lohengrin is knit together with big structural connections rather than ethereal charm.
Rhorer, 43, exists in a very different world. Although he works well with established institutions (he brought Rameau to mainstream audiences in a 2008 guest appearance with Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia), he has his own European historic-performance group, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, that doesn't try to prove old instruments can do the work of new ones.
The extreme clarity he achieved with harder-edged, wind-dominated sonorities delivered numerous revelations in Don Giovanni. When the title character begins chasing a new woman, you hear a clear reference to hunting horns. The production tried modernizing the opera, with Don Giovanni cremated alive rather than going to hell. But the vitality came from the music being released from the usual layer of modern-instrument sound.
Grimal, 43, and his conductorless orchestra, Les Dissonances, have been around for a dozen years, anchored at Opéra de Dijon. But only in the last few years has the group's archive been mined for a series of self-produced recordings, handsomely packaged like hard-bound books. I stumbled upon them at the Paris music store La Dame Blanche, and discovered performances that don't sound or act like any other. Every element of the music, from Beethoven symphonies to Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1, has enjoyed a thorough and highly personal reexamination by these bold-minded players.
Les Dissonances' recordings show how much symphonic texture can benefit from less vibrato. That is why so many contrapuntal details emerge in the conductorless Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony includes the fragmentary sketches for the third movement, which tell you much more about where the composer was headed than any of the more speculative completions.
Violinist Grimal's own charismatic playing makes his Bernstein Serenade the best out there. Only a wayward, newly composed cadenza in Beethoven's Violin Concerto keeps him out of my top three.
Pianist Adam Laloum greeted early risers with an 11 a.m. Sunday chamber concert at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées on one of those depressingly damp, gray Paris mornings. I snuggled into my seat, not expecting to hear some of the most sympathetic Brahms playing of recent years.
But that's what I got with the Clarinet Trio Op. 114. The rail-thin Laloum was the catalyst, somehow creating his own magic circle of beautifully shaded piano tone while drawing in clarinetist Raphaël Sévère and cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière with an almost tactile warmth. Explorations of his recordings and broadcasts show he can be as adventurous as he is poetic: In Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27, his own ornamentation crosses the line into improvisation in ways that only flatter Mozart's own notes.
Of course, not everything in Paris is of such a rare caliber, and the classical world, like any other, has its ups and downs. Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride at the Paris Opera was only moderately inspired with Véronique Gens and conductor Bertrand de Billy.
But there's no reason that, with a bit more effort from the music industry, these worlds can't intersect more often. Sure, we have great artists here. But I want them all.