Monday, November 06, 2017

Symphony Preview: Self-improvement program

Maurice Ravel birthday party, New York City, March 8, 1928
L-R: Oscar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer;
Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor;
and composer George Gershwin
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This weekend (November 10 - 12, 2017) at Powell Hall, guest conductor John Storgårds takes the podium as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays a varied program featuring the local premiere of a piece that's almost 100 years old, one of Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits, and a popular piano concerto that was the result of a failed attempt at self-improvement by Maurice Ravel.

The Ravel work in question is the Concerto in G, written mostly between 1929 and 1932. It's one of only two piano concertos in his catalog (the other is the Concerto in D for the left hand, written at around the same time) and it represented an attempt by Ravel to improve his own less than stellar skill as a pianist.

Ravel, as Washington University's Hugh Macdonald has written, was not a virtuoso at the keyboard. “In his public appearances as a concert pianist,” notes Mr. Macdonald, “he had preferred to play easier pieces like the Sonatine and was all too conscious that his technique was not up to his most demanding works, such as Gaspard de la nuit. But rather than write a piece within his own capacity, he decided to write a concerto of proper difficulty and simply acquire the technique to play it.” Thus was born the Concerto in G.

The composition process was apparently long and difficult, having begun as early as 1911, according to Mr. Macdonald:
"Gustave Samazeuilh recounted that in 1911 he and Ravel spent a holiday in the Basque region (where both of them had come from) and that Ravel sketched a “Basque Concerto” for piano and orchestra. Without the right idea for a central linking movement the work was abandoned, to reappear 20 years later as the G-major Concerto. This at least suggests a Basque origin for some of the themes, although it is easier, without any general familiarity with Basque music, to recognize that the livelier themes emerge from Ravel's preoccupation with the brilliant percussive qualities of the piano itself and that the languorous melodies betray his gift for giving a peculiarly sophisticated edge to the language of jazz."

Jazz was certainly in the air in Paris in the late 1920s and Ravel got a taste of the real thing during a 1928 tour of the USA, so much is understandably made about the jazzy influences in the concerto; possible Basque influences, not so much. Regardless of the source of the concerto's inspiration, though, the result is characteristically Ravel: inventive, witty, and brilliantly orchestrated.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Ravel's attempts to bring his keyboard skills up to the level required by the concerto came to naught, unfortunately. He was already in his mid fifties-a time in life when learning new skills becomes more difficult-and his health was declining, resulting in memory problems and difficulty concentrating. So when it came time for the French premiere of the concerto, the solo role went to Marguerite Long, who taught piano at the Paris Conservatoire between 1906 and 1940. And even she found it a challenge.

“It is a difficult work,” she observed in the posthumously published Au Piano avec Maurice Ravel, “especially in respect of the second movement where one has no respite. I told Ravel one day how anxious I was, after all the fantasy and brilliant orchestration of the first part, to be able to maintain the cantabile of the melody of the piano alone during such a long slow flowing phrase... 'That flowing phrase!' Ravel cried. 'How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!'"

At the Steinway for this weekend's concerts will be Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin, last seen here in 2009. He has made a number of recordings for Hyperion, concentrating on some of the more obscure composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the inventive American Frederic Rzewski, virtuoso pianist Leopold Godowski, and one of my own favorites, Charles-Valentin Alkan. That seems apt preparation for a work as eclectic as the Ravel concerto.

The concerts will open with the first local performance of Tänzchen im alten Stil ("Little Dance in the Old Style"), composed in 1918 by one of the great names in Hollywood film music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Written when the composer was just beginning to make a name for himself and long before the rise of Hitler would drive him to expatriate status in the USA, this short (around seven minutes) piece looks back nostalgically to the “old style” of the Viennese waltz and, as Benjamin Pesetsky tells us in the program notes , features a “gorgeous cello solo that would be equally at home in a Brahms symphony or a silver-screen love theme.” If you've ever heard Korngold's popular Violin Concerto or his classic film scores (like The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Prince and the Pauper), you know what to expect.

The concerts will conclude with my favorite Tchaikovsky symphony-his Fourth, in F minor, last heard in Powell Hall in March 2015, with David Robertson at the baton. I'm going to basically reprise what I wrote about it back then because it's still valid and because I am occasionally given to bouts of sloth.

"Tchaikovsky with wife Antonina Miliukova"
by Ivan Grigoryevich Dyagovchenko
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons
Tchaikovsky began writing the symphony during a winter of discontent (to paraphrase Shakespeare) in 1876-77. "Since we last met," he wrote to his friend Ivan Klimenko on May 8, 1877, "I am very much changed-especially mentally. Not a kopek's worth of fun and gaiety is left in me. Life is terribly empty, tedious, and tawdry. My mind turns towards matrimony, or indeed any other steady bond. The only thing that has not changed is my love for composing. If the conditions of my life were different, if my desire to create were not balked at every step...I might write something really decent."

His disastrous attempt at marriage in 1877 to a former student, Antonina Miliukova didn't help matters any. He was gay, she didn't get it, and the entire business collapsed after only a few months. Still, by the beginning of 1878, all that Sturm und Drang had resulted in the creation of "something really decent." Although initially dismissed by critics who were baffled by the first movement's length (at just over 17 minutes, it takes up about half of the symphony's total time) and unusual structure, the Fourth would gradually gain acceptance and acclaim. It's now one of Tchaikovsky's most popular symphonies.

As well it should be. The composer poured all of his hope and despair into this most compact and dramatically expressive of all his symphonies. From the commanding "fate" motive first intoned by the brasses at the beginning to the nearly hysterical triumph of the finale, this is a piece that grabs you by the lapels and doesn't let go until the end. I've loved this work from the first time I heard it in a recording by Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra on my parents' old console stereo some fifty years ago. I think you will as well.

The Essentials: John Storgårds conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with pianist Marc-André Hamelin in music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky Friday at 10:30 a.m, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 10 - 12. The performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information:

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