|Maurice Ravel in 1925|
This weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts (on Friday and Saturday, February 2 and 3) mark the first appearance here by conductor Stéphane Denève since his appointment as the orchestra's 13th music director last July. Appropriately enough, it's an all-French program that mixes the familiar with less the well-known and just a splash of the new--rather like the 2018-19 program, details of which were released earlier this week.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is heavily favored, contributing three of the five works we'll hear this weekend. As someone who has always been a great admirer of Ravel's work in general and his orchestrations in particular, I view that as a very good thing.
The concerts will open with the Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) Suite, based on a two-piano suite originally written for Mimie and Jean, the two children of Ravel's friend Cipa Godebski, an expatriate Polish artist, and his wife Ida. They were supposed to give the work its first performance at the Société Musicale Indépéndantes in 1910 but stage fright got the better of them and two other kids got the opportunity.
The work proved popular enough to merit an orchestration in 1911 and later even a full-length ballet, but it's the former that we'll hear this weekend. Inspired by the fairy stories of Charles Perrault as well as anonymous folk sources, the five movements make up a veritable musical toy box brimming with auditory delights.
The suite opens with the brief, tranquil Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty) with its placid flute melody. Next is Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), who gets lost in a forest of wandering strings while chirping birds in the woodwinds and violins eat his breadcrumbs. Laideronnette, Impératrice des pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas) is a brilliant exercise in pentatonic Chinoiserie complete with tam-tam, cymbals, and xylophone.
Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) is one of the most charming inspirations, with the serene Beauty on clarinet answered by the growling Beast on contrabassoon. The final Le Jardin féerique (The Enchanted Garden) is a long, romantic build to a shimmering finale that is quintessential Ravel.
|Francis Poulenc in 1922|
Photo by Joseph Rosmand
Up next is the exuberant Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Francis Poulenc (1889-1963), first performed in 1932 by the composer himself and Jacques Février as soloists with Désiré Defauw conducting the La Scala Orchestra. Like so much of Poulenc's orchestral works, the concerto is chockablock with appealing musical ideas, including what Roger Dettmer at AllMusic.com describes as "bits of once-popular chansons (like croutons in salad)" to complement Poulenc's own themes.
There's a bit of Javanese gamelan-inspired music at the end of the first movement (Poulenc had heard some at the Paris Colonial Exhibition a year earlier), a Mozartian second movement that slowly morphs into a major romantic climax, and a final Rondo that Mr. Dettmer describes so picturesquely that I find myself obliged to quote him in full:
Returning to the mood of the first movement, the Allegro molto finale begins with percussive flourishes before it takes off like an Alfa-Romeo in a Grand prix through the avenues and allées of day-and-night Paris, past marching bands and music halls. There is, however, an interlude lyrique et romantique when the Alfa stops for a bedroom tryst, where perfume and perspiration mix with the smoke from Gauloises, after which the race resumes, even more racily.If that doesn't make you want to hear Christina and Michelle Naughton perform the concerto this weekend, I don't know what will.
Photo by Fanny Houillon
Flammenschrift, or "fire-letter," is a word that Goethe used in his poem "Marienbad Elegy." I wished to compose a "Furies' tune" that draws a psychological portrait of Beethoven and, more generally, pays homage to the music of Germany. For Beethoven, I portray an angry, seething, impetuous man, whose interior violence shows through in numerous pages of his music. In his works, Beethoven constantly celebrated the fraternity of man, but he was often harsh with his loved ones and domestic servants. My desired musical portrait originates in this paradox. This misanthropic Beethoven-seen walking down the street looking disheveled, with his misshapen hat, this loner cursed by destiny but sanctified by genius-has always fascinated me: he constructed a very significant image of the artist in the 19th-century imagination that endures to the present day.This weekend's concerts will conclude with Ravel's La Valse, a work that began in 1911 with the title Wein (Vienna). And, in fact, a bit of it shows up in a piece from that same year that will be played immediately before La Valse at these concerts, the Valses nobles et sentimentales. Before it could be completed, however, World War I (in which the composer served as an ambulance driver) intervened, and by the time La Valse was submitted to (and foolishly rejected by) Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in 1919, it had become something far more profound.
Photo by Jessica Griffin
That about sums it up. I can't hear it without envisioning a huge, ornate machine spinning faster and faster until it hurls itself to pieces-as the complex structure of 19th-century Europe did in the so-called "war to end all wars". The piece is, needless to say, brilliantly orchestrated, and its crashing finale is thrilling-but also a bit unnerving. It reminds me of the old joke about the problem with history being that every time it repeats itself, the price goes up.
To circle back to the Valses nobles et sentimentales, the title (usually translated as "Noble and sentimental waltzes," although "romantic" might be more a better translation than "sentimental") was intended by Ravel as an homage to a set of piano pieces Shubert had written nearly a century earlier: the Valses sentimentales from 1823 and the Valses nobles from 1826. Indeed, Ravel claimed that he was "intent on writing a set of Schubertian waltzes." Personally, I don't see how anyone could mistake the bracing, elegant, and brilliantly orchestrated set of seven short waltzes and an epilogue as anything but pure Ravel.
The Essentials: Music Director Designate Stéphane Dèneve conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and duo pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton on Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, February 2 and 3. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.