Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Symphony Preview: Reanimated

This Saturday and Sunday (January 27 and 28) Music Director Stéphane Denève returns to lead the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in an unusual program of three works with three things in common. First, they were all written during the first half of the last century. Second, they were all theatrical (two ballets and one piece for narrator and orchestra). And third, all three will be performed in ways that probably would never have occurred to their creators.

[Preview the music with the SLSO's Spotify playlist.]

Albert Roussel in 1913
Public Domain, Link

First, it’s the score for the 1912 “ballet-pantomime” “Le Festin de l’araignée” (“The Spider’s Feast”) by Albert Roussel (1869–1937).  A relatively solitary and independent figure, probably due to the loss of his parents and grandparents before he turned ten, Roussel was influenced by both Impressionism and Neo-classicism. He absorbed those trends into his own personal style, which Nicolle Labelle (in Grove Online) describes as “harmonically spiced and rhythmically vigorous.”

You can hear that in “Le Festin de l’araignée,” which he wrote at the request of Jacques Rouché, director of the Théâtre des Arts in Paris. The scenario, as you might guess from the title, describes a day in the lives and deaths of insects caught by a spider who is himself done in by a praying mantis. That sounds a bit grim, but Roussel’s music is so exotic and appealing in its mashup of late French Romanticism and Impressionism that it’s impossible not to love it.

That said, complete ballet scores don’t always work in a concert setting, tied as they are to the action on stage. In this performance, though, visuals will be provided by illustrator Grégoire Pont using a technique he calls Cinesthetics. This involves Pont creating his illustrations in real time as the score is performed with the intent of “offering audiences spellbinding new connections between eyes, ears, and mind.”

Pont does this using a touch screen and stylus, with the images displayed on a big screen in the auditorium. For a preview of what to expect this weekend, check out the artist’s short demonstration video on YouTube. This is, quite literally, performance art. Given the state of the art in film back in 1912, I doubt that this would have ever crossed Roussel’s mind.

Although not one of France’s better known musical sons, Roussel is a favorite of Denéve, who recorded all of his symphonies for Naxos back in 2010. His performance of Roussel’s Symphony No. 3 with the SLSO in 2020 was enough to convince me that his admiration for the composer is fully justified.

Francis Poulenc in 1922
Photo by Joseph Rosmand

After intermission we leap forward to 1942 and a suite from the ballet “Les animaux modèles” (“The Model Animals”) by Francis Poulenc (1899–1963).  A member of that eccentric group of French composers known as “Les Six,” Poulenc is best known for witty and somewhat Neoclassical works like his Organ Concerto, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (performed so brilliantly here in 2018, and his many pithy pieces for solo piano. Poulenc also had a more serious side, though, as revealed in his opera “La voix humaine” (a fine performance of which graced Opera Theatre’s 2020 season), his religious works, and his 1955 opera “Dialogues des Carmélites” (“The Dialogs of the Carmelites,” also presented at Opera Theatre in 2014).

“Les animaux modèles” shows off both sides of Poulenc’s musical personality. Based on the tales from the twelve volumes of Fables by Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695), the full-length ballet ranges from brightly comic numbers like “L'homme entre deux âges et ses deux maîtresses” (“The Middle-Aged Man and His Two Mistresses”) to the passionate nobility of “Le lion amoureux” (“The Lion in Love”) and the solemnity of the concluding “Le repas de midi” (Lunchtime). The suite includes these numbers along with three others.

Since it was written in Nazi-occupied France, “Les animaux modèles” has a subtext that goes beyond La Fontaine’s fanciful stories. Poulenc was already part of the resistance, having joined the Front National des Musiciens (The National Front of Musicians), which fought the Teutonic invasion of the musical world, and embedding pro-French and anti-Nazi themes in his music. He did so in a way that went over the heads of the Nazis, fascists being notoriously unable to handle nuance. As David Raymond wrote in program notes for the Rochester Philharmonic, “The fables of LaFontaine are (or were) considered one of the glories of French literature, and given that any educated French audience would recognize them, Poulenc’s ballet became a symbol of French civilization and resistance.”

We’ll hear one example of the composer’s Antifa sarcasm Sunday, in the fifth movement of the suite, “Les deux coqs” (“The Two Roosters”), in which Poulenc quotes the 1871 anti-German song “Alsace et Lorraine.” Written in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war (which resulted in the German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine), the refrain goes like this:

Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine,
Et malgré vous nous resterons Français ;
Vous avez pu germaniser la plaine,
Mais notre cœur, vous ne l'aurez jamais.

Rough translation: “You will not have Alsace and Lorraine, and despite you we will remain French; you were able to Germanize the plain, but you will never have our hearts.” As Poulenc recalled later, “I gave myself the treat, recognized only by some members of the orchestra…each time the trumpet started out on the tune, I couldn’t help smiling.”

Unlike Poulenc’s audiences, most Americans are unlikely to be familiar with La Fontaine’s work, so Denève has chosen a novel approach. The suite has been cut down from its original eight movements to six, and each one will be paired with a modern English translation (by the late Craig Hill) of its original fable, read by our own "trusty and well-beloved" thespian Ken Page.

Prokofiev in New York, 1918

With the final work on the program, “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), we go from adding narration to removing it. Composed in 1936 on a commission from Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, this tale (with a text by Prokofiev) of the stalwart Peter’s mostly successful attempt to protect his animal friends from the nefarious wolf has proven to be wildly popular worldwide.

It has been much admired at the SLSO as well, most recently performed in May 2021 under the baton of David Robertson with actress and singer/songwriter Alicia Revé Like as the narrator. This time around the narrator will be replaced with the Oscar-winning 2006 animated film “Peter and the Wolf” created by British writer/director Suzie Templeton. Templeton uses a technique known as “stop motion,” in which real-world objects are manipulated one frame at a time to create the illusion of motion.

Stop motion dates back to the silent film era, but I remember it primarily from the films of Ray Harryhausen, where it was used to create special visuals for films like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973). George Pal used stop motion for his “Puppetoons” in the 1940s and Nic Park used a variant called “Claymation” (in which the figures were sculpted from plasticine clay) for a series of films in the 1990s and 2000s such as the whimsical “Wallace and Gromit” shorts and the Hollywood hit “Chicken Run” (2000).

These days mass-market films have moved on to less time-consuming digital techniques, but stop motion still holds a place in the hearts of many film fans and directors. Using it here instead of the usual narrator will, according to the program notes, “tell a richer and more nuanced tale” and “demonstrate that music can tell powerful stories without uttering a single word.”

Next from the SLSO: Music Director Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the SLSO and actor Ken Page in Poulenc’s ballet “Les animaux modèles” (“The Model Animals”), Roussel’s ballet “Le Festin de l’araignée” (“The Spider’s Feast”), and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” In an interesting change-up, Prokofiev’s work will be performed without the usual narration but with Suzie Templeton’s animated 2006 film, while the Poulenc will be performed with Page reading contemporary translations of the La Fontaine fables that inspired the composer.  Performances will be Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm (January 27 and 28) at the Stifel Theater downtown.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

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