Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Columbus Symphony and La belle epoque: It really IS all about sex.

(OK, it really isn't)

The Columbus Symphony concludes the 2011-2012 Classical Series this weekend with music by French composers of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts,  with Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano and the Columbus Symphony Chorus.

The program on Saturday May 5 at 8 PM is broadcast live on Classical 101 FM and streamed on the web 101.

Pre-concert talks this Friday and Saturday at 7 pm. Just because you read this doesn't excuse you!

Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Faure:     Pavane
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, suite 2
Chausson: Poem of Love and the Sea
Durufle: Requiem

Much of this music is all about color- what do I mean 'all about color?' Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were less concerned about the element of music most accessible: melody. There are tunes a- plenty, but these composers, and their contemporary Ernest Chausson, were coming of age in the era of the impressionist painters. Monet, Manet and especially Matisse used color to create what they wanted to see rather than what was literally before them. Oversimplification? Yes. But the texture and the light of many of these paintings mirrors (there's a word the impressionists loved) the sound collages you'll hear tonight.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) followed Wagner in experimenting with tonality and rhythm. The downward chromatic figure that begins Prelude a l'apres midi d'une faune told the public in 1894 not to get too comfortable. The bar line rhythms of Mozart were giving way to an opaque texture filled with suggestion. You can hear the Faun scampering about on a hot summer afternoon, chasing nymphs-and this brief piece has an orchestral climax Wagner would have loved. Although this music flows, it doesn't 'land' where the ear expects. Debussy's music happens rather than being played.

Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) were too good for Serge Diaghilev to resit. The Russian born impresario of the Ballets Russes, with top hat, tails and rakish mustache, with his public and hedonistic affairs with Vaclav Nijinsky Michel Fokine and Leonard Massine WAS Parisian culture just before World War I. . Debussy and Ravel were well established world celebrities by 1912 but Diaghilev gave them the best kind of notoriety, the: success de scandale. The great Nijinsky choreographed and danced the faun to Debussy's music. The performance titillated, shocked and goaded the Parisian audiences with its heat and self-love.

Ravel didn't really want to work with Diaghilev. He knew that any success would be Diaghilev's and any failure would be Ravel's. Daphnis and Chloe was danced by the Ballets Russes in 1912. The idea came from choreographer Michel Fokine-and he caused Ravel  lot of consternation:

 " I must tell you I just had an insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3 a.m. What complicated things is that  Fokine doesn't know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the savour of these meetings."

If the Greek legend of children raised by foster parents who fall in love and are separated and then reunited is a tad obvious, you can hear the Ravel provided music is anything but fey-indeed it has a lusciousness and sensuality primed for (splendid) dancers. Ravel's score long outlived the Ballet Russes. He later adapted  Daphnis and Chloe into three suites for orchestra,of which we'll hear Suite 2. There's a spectacular sunrise, pirate ships, an abduction and a steamy reunion. Daphis et Chloe is Ravel's longest and largest scaled work-but no miniaturist he. (Last time I heard this work the friend who joined me remarked, 'At last, a composer who can make love without slobbering!')

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) died a fascinating death. He crashed his bicycle. This somewhat overshadows his life at the center of a Parisian salon attractive to Debussy, Faure, Albeniz, Turgenev and Monet. He was an attorney with a respectable profession and an attractive wife-and he had the Wagner bug as well, encouraged by Cesar Franck.

Who knows how Chausson would have developed had he lived longer? I'll bet he would have discovered jazz and gone running after Schoenberg and twelve-tone music..for a bit.

The Poeme de l'amour et de la mer for voice and orchestra took eight years to complete, 1882-1890. Chausson had already produced a terrific opera,  Le roi d'Arthus and another 'Poeme' for violin and orchestra.

The Poem of Love and the Sea sets two poems by Maurice Bouchor-and the sea imagery is made for the play on light and the chimera of the impressionists

"The wind has changed, the skies are sullen/and no more shall we run and gather/the lilac in bloom and lovely roses/the springtime is sad and cannot bloom"

Chausson doesn't tell us if the voice is more important than the orchestra or vice versa? The fabric is pretty tight. The voice rises from the orchestra (as if from the seas?)  This is music in which to wallow.

Very different is the sublime Requiem by Maurice Durufle Durufle (1902-1986). Just as sonority-how the orchestra sounded was paramount to Debussy, so generations later Durufle gave us an other sonority, based on Gregorian Chant.

Durufle became devoted to chant as practised at the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes. He came by this love naturally. for fifty-seven years, from 1929 until his death 1986, Maurice Durufle was organist at the Parisian church of  Ste.-Etienne-du Mont. There he prepared the first performance of his Requiem, a lament for post-occupation France, in 1947.  Durufle was one of the great church organists of Paris-a city where the king of instruments is taken very seriously to this day.  Not for Durufle the eroticism of Debussy, Chausson and Ravel. As well crafted as those scores are, Durufle is restrained, careful, dignified and emphatic. You don't mess with Durufle.

What a program for our final Columbus Symphony concerts this season! The sensuality and heavy breathing, the colors of Debussy, Ravel and Chausson, and the piety mixed with gorgeousness of Durufle's Requiem. We'll hear our splendid Columbus Symphony chorus directed by Ronald Jenkins, and a fantastic mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Rivera. .Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts. What's not to love?

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