Tag Archives: Maurice Ravel

SF Symphony Visits a Bad Child in Beautiful Music: L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Let us begin with a confession: this writer is one who recoils just a bit, one step back, upon hearing that a symphony will be accompanied by multi-media. Believing that music is enough on its own and that Bartok, Debussy, Ravel are complex enough to require and reward careful, focused listening, yes, a step back is in order. The performance of Maurice Ravel’s one act opera, L’enfant et les Sortileges, June 28, changed that outlook. It was an exciting performance in which all the many elements worked together so well that it is now difficult to imagine the music without the entire SF Symphony, the Symphony Chorus, the Young Women’s Chorus, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the nine vocalist soloists, and the phenomenally attractive, animated figures of armchairs, frogs, bats, trees and other natural creatures, including the enormous hand of Maman, a mother who has had it with her child.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The story in the opera was written by Colette, the popular French author whose marvelous writing about cats, love, nature, growing up, getting older can capture a reader’s attention until every last page is read and re-read. The history of the opera’s creation includes World War I. The Director of the Paris Opera suggested Colette write a libretto for an opera. He also suggested various composers; Colette was sold on the project as soon as Ravel’s name was mentioned. Ravel, however, was at Verdun, in 1916, a place and battle whose horrors define that war. The composer was a driver in the Motor Transport Corps. Colette’s story was sent to Verdun. What could they be thinking? It was lost. In 1917, another was sent. Ravel was demobilized and able to study the story and begin thinking of his music. The opera’s premiere was at the Theatre de Monte-Carlo, Monaco, in 1925.

Photograph courtesy of the website of artist/animator Gregoire Pont from the premiere of L’enfant et les Sortileges, Lyon, France, 2016.

The title of the story can be translated in many ways; The Child and the Magic Spells suits what happens. On the stage there is a thin curtain hanging between the back of the conductor and the area nearest the audience (down stage). The Child, a boy brilliantly played by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard wearing shapeless shorts, tee shirt and hat, is reprimanded by his mother for failing to do his home work and messing up the house and his work book. He is not going to have a nice dinner, and he feels rebellious. He would like to pull the tail of the cat and, if he could find one, cut the tail off a squirrel. A giant hand appears on the curtain in white outlines. The Child cowers a little before it, but then he continues his rebellion. Two armchairs appear on the curtain (sung by Marnie Breckenridge and Michael Todd Simpson). They are the first of a series of objects and animals which are projected onto the curtain and enacted by the singer soloists. Each character describes the ways in which the child has harmed it. When the scrim is covered in images of insects moving up and down in columns, one sees a dragonfly flitting across the vertical rows. Then, a singer stands alongside the human sized image of the dragonfly’s wings. He (Jennifer Johnson Cano) sings of the painful loss of his mate, killed by the Child. There are trees (Mr. Simpson) which have been stabbed by the child’s knife. There are two cats who love and fight (Kelly Markgraf and Ginger Costa-Jackson), a Wedgewood tea cup (Ms Costa-Jackson), saucer, and tea pot (Ben Jones) which the Child has broken. Bats (Nikki Einfeld) fly away, terrified by the Child. All sing through the presence of the soloists who interact with the gracefully drawn images. Frogs swim across the ceiling of the concert hall.

Fire in L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Anna Christy, soloist, stands on a block and sings Fire. A long, loose cloak drapes her while changing colors of orange, red, yellow are projected on her and all over the screen. The Child has not only transgressed by playing with the fire, but also endangered the whole house. Fire tells him “Good Children get warm, Bad Children get burned.” Ms Christy sings the role of the Princess in a fairy tale. The boy wants to be her hero. He says, “If only I had a sword,” and a knight’s helmet with great plumes appears on the screen exactly over his head as the sword is “drawn” into his hand. The Princess sings, “You are too weak” and “how long can a dream last?”

The creatures and objects are tired of being oppressed by the boy. They join forces and fight with him. A general impression could be that the child realizes it is safer to be good than to be bad. In the libretto, the child sees that a baby squirrel’s paw has been injured. He decides to bind its wound. He also observes that the others have each other and love, but he is alone. Suddenly, he calls out “Maman.” The others recognize this as a magic word that the child uttered as he did something good. The action of the Child caring for the squirrel was not included in this performance. So, having the other soloists begin to sing that the child is “wise” and good, was startling. He’s not good, not yet. Seeing the Child attack every aspect of nature and objects of civilization including china, a clock, furniture, and learning may look different to today’s audience observing mass extinctions; extreme hurricanes, fires, floods; and the melting of the Arctic thanks to human’s lack of care for their own world than it did to audiences and artists who had survived and witnessed the gross destruction of human life in World War I. The Child yearned for his mother at a time of crisis; one might say he reaches out for the good.

The projections were created by Gregoire Pont, a French artist who began to study animation at age 8. He calls his work Cinesthetics described on his website as”in complicity with a group of musicians, he draws and animates live, creating a unique experience where music and motion interplay.” Among his other works are Ravel’s La Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) presented in London’s Festival Hall and the Paris Philharmonic; Shonberg’s Gurrelieder presented in Gothenberg; Debussy’s La Mer presented in Tokyo. The singers interacted with the projections by becoming part of the picture or striking toward the screen to make the image change or singing notes that made the images change rhythmically. It was a fantastic performance, both visually and musically inspiring.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins was a cheerful sorcerer bringing forth beauty, curiosities, musical tales and philosophy. He is the Music Director of the English National Opera. The first half of the concert evening included works with themes or images related to childhood. Pianist John Wilson performed three solo selections from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. With musicians from the SFS, he performed Debussy’s La Plus que lente. All were beautifully performed and delightful. An SFS chamber group including Helen Kim, violin; Matthew Young, viola; Sebastien Gingras, cello; Sayaka Tanikawa, piano, performed Faure’s Allegro molto from Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Opus 15. Debussy’s Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (A carol of the homeless children, 1916) was a  cri de coeur sung with appropriate pain and passion by Ginger Costa-Jackson with pianist Peter Grunberg. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Grunberg played the piano four hands work by Ravel, The Enchanted Garden, from La Mere L’Oye. The entire concert was an Enchanted Garden which thoroughly charmed, enlivened, and lifted the audience sending all home with sparkles in their eyes.

 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and SF Symphony: Extraordinary!

The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Lionel Bringuier, performed an extraordinary concert, January 28, at Davies Symphony Hall. The program featured seldom heard selections by Kodaly and Ravel and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, perhaps the least often performed of his nine symphonies. The brilliant, ever surprising Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. The result was colorful, dynamic, fascinating,; an exceptionally fine night of music.

Kodaly  Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta (1933) opened the evening. The work is so original, varied, and delightful it seems to pack a whole program into its mere fifteen minutes. Kodaly (1882-1967) may be best known for his excursions into the Hungarian countryside to collect folk songs and dance music. However, the folk rhythms and styles in this five movement suite are made into mighty, breath taking classical music as they went through Kodaly’s fantastic imagination. His music is not a graduate thesis. His understanding of the music played in the Hungarian and Transylvanian folk traditions was his key into new creative territory. The Dances of Galanta alternates between forceful rhythms and sparkling tunes. No reason to think of music inspired by dances as anthropology, unless, when remembering Bach’s Gigues, Bourrees and Sarabandes one also identifies those pieces by the dances that gave them their names and studies them as cultural anthropology of European court life.

RavelPianoMaurice Ravel (1875-1937) was also a great composer whose attachment to his ancestral home, the Basque country near the French-Spanish border, influenced his work. His compositions with reference to Spanish music are not quotations of Spanish folk sources but have risen out of the rich resources in Ravel’s mind and heart.   2-Photo-by-Decca-Kasskara-tone-1200x627  Jean-Yves Thibaudet was amazing. He is a musician-magician. He has been a star performer since winning awards in his teenage years. He performs with great mastery and allegiance to the music. Although he is charismatic onstage, he is not a showboat; he is only a great pianist. Ravel’s Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra (1932) gave him opportunities for power and gentleness. It was a stunning performance. The Concerto in G was first concerto he performed publicly. He was 11 and had won a competition. He told his teacher he wanted to perform this; she said, no, maybe Mozart or Mendelssohn. He learned the impossible first movement and convinced her. His teacher, Lucette Descaves, had been Ravel’s friend and had performed this Concerto with Ravel conducting. Mr. Thibaudet has said this made him feel he knew Ravel. His debut with the SF Symphony was in 1994; they are still a splendid partnership. The wind section was particularly wonderful. In addition to his Spanish/Basque roots, Ravel was entranced by American jazz. In the first movement there are two notes which seem direct from Rhapsody in Blue. Ravel’s jazz exists in his riffs on what the piano can do with the pianist’s astonishing technique: rapid fire trills to effects the pianist creates through pawing at the keys. The Adagio movement: is it inspiring love or gently lamenting it? During intermission I heard a grandmother from Boston tell her piano playing grandson from San Mateo that there is sadness and suffering in love and that’s what makes the blues. Ok, I’ll listen again. thibaudet-jean-yves-980x520

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60 (1807) is bright, cheerful, and races along doing special musical stunts while occasionally breaking into laughter. There are moments of darkness, but they are overtaken by the energy and continual invention of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

lionel-bringuier-2-120x67Maestro Bringuier had a triumph with this performance. He did not force the Symphony to be played in fewer minutes than the predicted 31; he did not contort the SF Symphony players into latex, Iron Man outfits. Lionel Bringuier is also a French musician who started his stellar career very young. His professional conducting debut was at age 14 on French national television. He was resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for six years before becoming Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, in 2012. He gave us the experience of Beethoven’s music, and it was an exciting, challenging, engulfing experience. Pictures, from top: Zoltan Kodaly; Joseph-Maurice Ravel; Jean-Yves Thibaudet by Decca Kasskara, courtesy SF Symphony; Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Lionel Bringuier.

 

San Francisco Symphony & Pablo Heras-Casado

Pablo Heras-Casado   Pablo Heras-Casado is the young Spanish conductor who seems to be conducting everywhere all the time. He is Principal Conductor of Saint Luke’s, New York, since 2012, and Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Real, Madrid, since 2014, the year he was named Musical America’s Conductor of the Year. He conducted the San Francisco Symphony three times, April 27 – 29, in an unusual program matching major 20th century composers with a lengthy world premiere work by Mason Bates. The Bates work, Auditorium, was commissioned by the SF Symphony. Adding more electronic interest to the electronica in Auditorium, the April 27 concert attended by the Hedgehogs was the first ever to stream live from a major orchestra to broadcast online worldwide via Facebook Live. It launched at 8:15pm PDT on April 27 on the SFS Facebook page, and will be archived for future viewing.  The program included Dance Suite (1923) by Bela Bartok, Auditorium (2016) by Mason Bates, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) by Maurice Ravel, Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Opus 70(1945), by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Bartók_Béla_1927 The Dance Suite opened the program and was  a high point of the performance. It is indeed a suite of five movements, each with multiple rhythms and characters. Bartok made extensive forays into the Hungarian countryside, sometimes with composer and musicologist Zoltan Kodaly, to gather authentic folk tunes. In his Dance Suite, there are contrasting styles which have more Middle Eastern or perhaps more Romanian character. However, he wrote them all himself and did not quote the folk tunes. While one movement might have a riotous force of dancers circling madly, another has the mysterious, nearly otherworldly magic that Bartok could create as though he heard the music of the spheres playing through the star light. The SF Symphony and Maestro Heras-Casado were able to present Bartok’s magic in all its quickness and variety without letting a musical “crack the whip” run away with them with dizzying abandon.

As the streaming event was to begin at 8:15 and Bartok’s Dance Suite is listed in the program as “About 16 minutes,” one must conclude that the Bates piece alone was chosen to be broadcast across the Facebook world. According to the extensive program notes, “Auditorium begins with the premise that an orchestra like a person, can be possessed. The work haunts the SFS with ghostly processed recordings of a Baroque ensemble, with the electronic part comprised entirely of original neo-Baroque music created for the SF Conservatory’s Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Corey Jamason. Essentially it is a work for two orchestras–one live, one dead.” There were definitely sound effects reminiscent of creaky stairs, odd burblings, that dry ice evaporating ssst, and ghostly squeaks which brought to mind the Munsters of mid-century fame. Mr. Bates sat in the back of the orchestra with two laptops on which he produced the sounds. The orchestration included such notions as the playing of a piano key being promptly echoed by the playing of an electronic key.

RavelRavel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin may have been the most familiar of the diverse works on the program, or at least the most frequently performed. For that reason, it was surprising that this was the point in the concert where the SF Symphony seemed to lose its enthusiasm. The work is made of four movements; each is a specific dance of the French Baroque era such as a Menuet/Minuet and the French folk dance the lively Rigaudon. The SFS had recently returned from an extensive East Coast tour; the conductor had perhaps focused most on the premiere work. One often could not hear the rhythms in the dances or recognize this well-loved work by an important, well-loved composer.

220px-Dmitri_Shostakovich_credit_Deutsche_Fotothek_adjustedShostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 fared better. A work of great energy which is the shortest symphony by Shostakovich, it was applauded by the public but reviled by the Soviet government when premiered. The bureaucracy from Stalin on down mostly despised their great composer. He did not write to formula. He presented a perversity to party line which enraged them. Danger followed closely behind Shostakovich throughout his career. This symphony, according to those in charge, should have been an heroic anthem to the Russians whose courage, perseverance, massive sacrifices, and dreadful winter had defeated the Nazis. Instead, it is playful, frisky, almost jokey, but it is a comedy that suggests it is only being funny because the tragedy behind the mask is too enormous and permanent to describe. The SF Symphony responded to Maestro Heras-Casado playing breathlessly like a runaway troika.

 

 

Israel Philharmonic in San Francisco: Bardanashvili, Ravel, Beethoven

The Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Metha conducting, performed at Davies Symphony Hall, November 8. The concert presented challenging music with excellent results: A Journey to the End of the Millenium, by Josef Bardanashvili; La Valse, by Maurice Ravel; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

bardanashviliThis writer confesses to trying to like music by contemporary composers and mostly not succeeding. A Journey to the End of the Millenium is an exception. The composer calls it a symphonic poem; it was inspired by Bardanashivli’s opera of the same name , but is not a suite from the opera. The music has a dramatic path which captures the listener’s emotions and attention. The opera asked, “What are the mores of society at the opening of the 21st century?” The symphonic poem takes a journey with a woman. About to die, she looks back to her wedding day in a marriage in which she will be the second wife. Bardanashvili draws from deep sources: Moroccan music, ancient Jewish music, classically beautiful music, abrupt sounds. It has a three dimensional texture, like a rich wall hanging made in ikat colors of rubies and lapis; it is sometimes knotty and sometimes silky smooth. Most of all it was interesting, original, full of musical ideas which reached into the imagination and plucked at one’s nerves. Josef Bardanashvili was born in Georgia and moved to Israel in 1995. He is the composer of operas, ballets, and symphonies, music for theater and film.

RavelRavel’s La Valse changed its character from 1906 to 1919. Ravel intended to write a piece titled Wien (Vienna) in appreciation of Johann Strauss. When World War I began, the composer had not finished it, and his world was not the same. Diaghilev, the ballet impresario, commissioned the composer to complete La Valse. They had had success with Daphnis et Chloe for the Ballets Russes, but Diaghilev rejected La Valse, ending the partnership. The music is violent. One can visualize waltzing couples circling the dance floor, the brilliant chandeliers, the colors of the gowns becoming a blur as they spin faster. Ravel wrote a note for the music which suggests the scene at “An imperial court, about 1855.” Perhaps 1855 signifies a time of the old order, the time before civilization spun out of control and stopped looking like “civilization.” La Valse premiered in 1920. It sounds modern. It is recognizable as a waltz, but it is turbulent and frightening, a refusal of all the grace, ease, and pleasure that a waltz could incorporate. This may have been the best performance of La Valse that The Hedgehog has heard.

14708And then, the Eroica. Beethoven conducted the first public performance in 1805. On his own, Beethoven over turned the music world’s old order. Symphony No. 3 announced that music could not be the same as before Beethoven. It is bigger than previous symphonies both in its length and the universe it encompasses. It is grander, more powerful and accomplishes more revolutions than those enforced by Napoleon Bonaparte to whom Beethoven had originally meant to dedicate the work. Napoleon declared himself Emperor. Beethoven, yearning for a leader who would make the rights of man the basis of government, was furious at the betrayal. Beethoven changed his mind back and forth on the dedication to Napoleon, but left the name off the final manuscript. This article is being written on Veterans Day. The second movement, Marcia funebre: Adagio assai/Funeral March, is not to celebrate one Great Man. It commemorates each individual whose life was diminished or finished by war. It was played at Mendelssohn’s funeral, another great life lost. Beethoven introduces the lively boldness of heroes, the painful waste of their loss. The rights of man belong to every one; the Eroica is for every individual. Through the individual, Beethoven knows he reaches all humanity. The Eroica ends with a “YES,” Finale: Allegro molto. Having fought his way through loss and pain, the human is still himself and that is the human victory. The Israel Philharmonic and Maestro Mehta presented the Eroica with the musical integrity and passion it requires.

ZMehtaZubin Mehta, much honored conductor and music director of orchestras around the world, has been with the Israel Philharmonic since 1969. Since 1981 he has had the title, Music Director for Life. The very good news is that he is as handsome and charismatic as ever.