No concerts of the current season of the Spokane Symphony have displayed the power of the orchestra so brilliantly as those that took place this weekend in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The program was intended to observe the 80th anniversary of the death of French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), to set his music in the context of his time, and to illustrate how his influence has continued into ours.
Ravel was a perfectionist in all things, so it is not surprising that virtually all of his works he allowed to be published are masterpieces. The three we heard certainly qualify: “La Valse” (1920), “Rapsodie Espagnole” (1907), and “Bolero,” (1928), his most famous work. All display his enormous skill and exquisite taste in marshaling the sonic and rhythmic resources of the symphony orchestra. To highlight this mastery through comparison, music director and conductor Eckert Preu also programmed “La Tragedie de Salome” (1907) by Ravel’s friend and contemporary, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), and “Le Soleil” by contemporary Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon. The comparisons were illuminating, though not always flattering to the latter composers.
The bar was set very high at the outset by “La Valse,” which was a knockout, both technically and interpretively. Ravel intended to portray an image of a Viennese imperial ballroom of the mid-19th century rising out of a cloud of memory, to reveal the gaiety of the dancers as they whirled toward the cataclysm of World War I. Thanks to Preu’s meticulous interpretation, it was easy to hear how Ravel had based his conception on the second movement, “Un Bal,” of the “Symphonie Fantastique” of Hector Berlioz, which was also meant to be the vision of an elegant waltz party shadowed by tragedy. In fact, it was easy to hear everything, so clear and detailed was the picture the orchestra gave us of the score. As does Berlioz, Ravel begins with murmurings in the low strings that suggest the sinister underpinnings of the waltz that follows, introduced by sweeping glissandos from the harps. Ravel adds bizarre interjections from other instruments further signs that all is not well: growling in the bassoons, barking by the trumpets and dissonant scales from the flute.
As the dance progressed, Preu was diligent in clarifying details that are often glossed over, and that make the point that the gaiety is a bit too gay, that the outbursts contain an element of violence: that, in short, the world being portrayed contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is all there in the score, but seldom so tellingly displayed as it was by Preu and his orchestra.
Schmitt’s “La Tragedie de Salome” followed in a performance that could hardly be bettered. Nevertheless, the contrast between Ravel’s originality and Schmitt’s faded conventionality was inescapable. Schmitt’s skill at orchestration, which was considerable, is insufficient to conceal the complete absence of any melodic gift, though this did not stop the Spokane Symphony from lavishing all its skill and care on every phrase. Oboist Keith Thomas, for example, displayed far more passion and imagination in performing his solos than Schmitt did in writing them.
At one time, Schmitt’s music was as popular as that of Ravel or Claude Debussy, but its failure to provide a single phrase that sticks in the memory assured its eventual consignment to oblivion. This proves the point that one may be able to speak beautifully without having anything interesting to say.
Dubugnon’s “Le Soleil” reveals a more interesting mind. He plainly has learned his lesson well from Ravel, as the surface of his music, while tranquil, is constantly enlivened by piquant changes in color and instrumentation, though without quite the breadth of effect we heard in another contemporary work, Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto, performed at the last Classics Concert.
Though “Rapsodie Espagnole” is Ravel’s earliest orchestral work and “Bolero” one of his last, their aesthetic similarities are unmistakable. In both, Ravel seems to be making the point that, in the right hands, sound need not be separate from substance, nor manner from matter. Both pieces deploy sparse, though delightful melodic material, and make their impact by constantly delighting the ear and stimulating the mind through changes in instrumental color. “Bolero” is the most extreme example, in which there is no change in tempo, no dynamic contrast and no melodic variety. To illustrate this, Preu conducted the opening few minutes of “Bolero” as usual, and then left the stage to let the orchestra continue by themselves, as much as to say, “I did all I needed to in rehearsal, now focus on what this orchestra can do.” The effect was electric. The audience was invested in every hypnotic beat of the piece until its ecstatic conclusion, at which they jumped to their feet and welcomed the conductor back to the stage with their applause.
A recording of this concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday on Spokane Public Radio, 91.1 FM.
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