Maurice Ravel tended to work with short and medium-length durations. His two operas, L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges are both one-act compositions, as is his ballet Daphnis et Chloé. While the text manages the narrative flow of the operas, the ballet is the more ambitious project, since the music must take full responsibility for supporting the enactment of the narrative on the ballet stage. When that narrative is as slight as a pastoral romance, which is the best way to describe the literary source, both composer and choreographer have their work cut out for them. For this particular Ballets Russes project, first performed in 1912, both worked at some disadvantage, since Ravel knew no Russian and choreographer Michel Fokine knew no French.
Fortunately, Ravel took a “symphonic” (his word choice) approach to his score, rejecting the usual Russian model of short pieces for different dance forms, separated by pas d’action and pantomime scenes. Instead, he pursued a more integrated approach, venturing in the same direction that Igor Stravinsky had chosen for his score for The Firebird. Ravel’s melodic inventiveness served to define each of the half-dozen significant characters in the scenario and provided musical motivation for the actions taken by each of these characters. All of this unfolds in a pastoral scene defined in impeccable detail by Ravel’s keen sense of orchestration. Ballet may not have been his preferred genre; but, taken in its entirety, the results of this project were stunning. Indeed, in the progress of ballet scores, Daphnis et Chloé provides more of a link between The Firebird and The Rite of Spring than Stravinsky’s own Petrushka does (although Petrushka has plenty of merits of its own).
The only real problem is that the full score of Daphnis et Chloé is seldom heard. The ballet is not performed that often; and the music is rarely performed in concert, primarily because Ravel extracted two orchestral suites from it, the second of which has become one of the most popular pieces in the French repertoire. Fortunately, the full score has had some impressive champions. Pierre Monteux was its first conductor, and he brought the music to the San Francisco Symphony for their first performance of the work in December of 1947. Michael Tilson Thomas is now following in Monteux’ footsteps, having performed the complete score almost eight years ago. Last night at Davies Symphony Hall he revisited it, again with the support of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
What is probably most important about this fifty-minute performance is that, between the clarity of Ravel’s musical language and Thomas’ sense of pacing the tempos, the narrative played out perfectly well without the visual support of any choreography. (In fairness it is worth observing that this was the same combination of skills brought to light about two years ago when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of the complete Firebird score, with an equally effective result.) Thomas’ sense of pacing was matched by his command of balance, since this is music that demands massive orchestral resources. For all of that sound power, however, the dynamics tend to be understated in all but a few critical dramatic moments. Such understatement enhanced Ravel’s command of subtlety as each episode is clearly defined by the “background scene” he establishes. This was orchestral storytelling at its best; and, if Thomas has decided that he wishes to return to this score on a regular basis, then we are all likely to benefit. There will always be more to discover in this music.
Understatement was also critical to Stravinsky’s 1943 Ode, which opened last night’s concert. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to compose a memorial piece for his late wife, Natalie, Stravinsky gave this brief orchestral work the subtitle “Elegiacal Chant in Three Parts.” The three parts are entitled “Eulogy,” “Eclogue,” and “Epitaph.” “Eclogue” was originally composed as music for a hunting scene from the 1944 Jane Eyre film, with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester; but Stravinsky was never able to have an impact on Hollywood producers. (According to one of my music teachers, when Stravinsky was recommended for composing the score for The Song of Bernadette, one of the Twentieth Century Fox executives remarked, “Who needs Stravinsky when we can get Max Steiner?”) However, even this “action music” was appropriately subdued for the overall memorial tone, serving more as “breathing space” between the more solemn outer movements. Thomas clearly understood the need for understatement in performing this composition, offering it as an excellent complement to Ravel’s musical language.
By placing Leonard Bernstein’s 1965 Chichester Psalms between Stravinsky and Ravel, however, Thomas made it clear that understatement was not the overall theme of the evening. In contrast to the memorial instrumental mood of Ode, Chichester Psalms is a celebration of those texts attributed to David focused on ebullient praise. It is scored for full chorus with a solo voice in each of the four sections and a boy soprano in the second movement. The orchestration has a rather jolting effect, particularly since the only instruments other than strings and (abundant) percussion are three trumpets and three trombones. If the “Eclogue” was supposed to provide “breathing space” between the outer movements of Ode, then Chichester Psalms provided vast draughts of hyperventilation between Stravinsky and Ravel.
The one weakness of the performance was that Thomas’ overall balance of resources, which worked so well in Daphnis et Chloé, was far less effective where Bernstein was concerned. The few passages for the solo voices in the Chorus were all but inaudible, and the diction of the Chorus as a whole was not up to their usual high standard. (Unfortunately, Bernstein may have contributed to this problem. His decision to set his Biblical texts in the original Hebrew would have been more compelling had his vocal lines been more sensitive to both the overall phrasing of the language and the subtleties of its pronunciation, particularly since pronunciation standards change based on whether one is in the synagogue or out on the street.) Finally, even the full resources of the Chorus could not compete very well against a full percussion section at its most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, the overall effect was an impetuously rousing one that was probably as consistent with the Psalmist’s intentions as could be reasonably expected.
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