May 2018 Program Notes
Pardon My French
Guillaume Connesson: Night-Club
“A composer’s imagination is now made of a mosaic of music, not only classical, but also pop, rock, funk.” – Guillaume Connesson, 2014
Guillaume Connesson’s music draws on an eclectic variety of influences, including the minimalist works of John Adams and Steve Reich, the film scores of John Williams, and the sweaty rhythmic funk of James Brown. One of France’s leading contemporary composers, Connesson has also studied piano, music history, music theory, choral conducting and orchestration, and has been hailed for his masterful use of the orchestra, his inventive rhythms and melodies, and his music’s powerfully enduring emotional impact.
Night-Club, written in 1995 on commission from the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SACEM), is one of Connesson’s earliest works. The composer writes, “I always wanted to create bridges between the world of pop music – its energy, its emphasis on brass and characteristic chords – and classical music. Thus, I built my composition by reinterpreting rhythmic expressions of funk, disco chord riffs, and a driving omnipresent beat. This chamber orchestra piece consists of a single movement articulated in three sections (fast-slow-fast). In the first section, we enter the nightclub with its unfurling energy and color symbolized by a funk theme in the clarinets. In the calmer and lyric central section, the pulsing pauses for a drink at the bar and a momentary flirtation. But very quickly the hypnotic musical wave returns, and, tipsy with drink, the rhythms seems to lose their shape, fall apart, and finish in almost anguished spasms.”
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
“[The Concerto in G major] is a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” – Maurice Ravel
At first glance, the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart have little in common with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Ravel had previously written music that pays homage to earlier musical styles, such as the 1917 suite Le Tombeau de Couperin. In this piano concerto, however, Ravel sought to capture not Mozart’s Classicism, but the “absolute beauty” Mozart’s music inspired in him. “What Mozart created for the enjoyment of the ear is perfect,” said Ravel. “I believe that a concerto can be light-hearted and brilliant, and that there is no necessity for it to aim at profundity or big dramatic effects.” From this remark, listeners might infer that Ravel’s G major concerto is superficial, but this music delivers in every sense, despite its author’s claims to the contrary. As biographer Madeleine Goss notes, “In none of his compositions is Ravel more completely master of his art than in this Concerto. It has been said to embrace all the essentials of his music: brilliance, clarity, elegance, originality; tenderness and simplicity in the middle part, and, in the last movement, daring vigor and brittle perfection.”
In 1928, after Ravel returned from his successful travels in America, he decided to write a concerto he could take on an upcoming European tour. Ravel intended to perform the solo part himself, but soon realized his failing health would keep him off the piano bench. “The concerto is nearly finished and I am not far from being so myself,” Ravel acknowledged to a friend. Instead, Ravel recruited Marguerite Long, who thrilled at the opportunity to premiere Ravel’s concerto.
The Allegramente begins with a slapstick snap and a jaunty piccolo, followed by an equally bright, bouncy tune for trumpet. Although present from the opening bars, the piano makes its first declaration with a languid, bluesy melody. Throughout the first movement Ravel alternates these rapid-fire bursts of energy with rhapsodic, jazz-inflected episodes.
The exquisite serenity of the Adagio assai belies the tremendous effort it required from both composer and pianist. Long wrote, “I told Ravel one day how anxious I was, after all the fantasy and brilliant orchestration of the first part, to be able to maintain the cantabile of the melody on the piano alone during such a long slow flowing phrase …‘That flowing phrase!’ Ravel cried. ‘How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!’”
A snappy snare drum roll announces a return to the energy of the first movement, but this time the music has a zany circus quality. At just under four minutes, the Presto explodes with irrepressible force. The music is buoyantly joyful, a celebration of piano and orchestra that is quintessentially Ravel: stylish, expertly crafted, vibrant, and wholly entertaining.
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
After losing his right arm in combat during World War I, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein was determined to continue his concert career—and in the process, was solely responsible for establishing an unusual group of compositions. In order to have music to play, he developed a virtuosic left-hand technique and approached numerous composers—Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Benjamin Britten among them—to write works for him to perform with his remaining arm. His unique circumstances made him no less exacting. In one tale, Wittgenstein received music from Richard Strauss with a rich, extensive lush accompaniment, and commented, “How can one hand compete with a quadruple orchestra?” Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Concerto was dismissed with, “Thank you very much, but I don’t understand a single note of it and shall not play it.” And when he saw the long cadenza that opens Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand—considered the finest of the left-hand compositions—he complained, “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”
Despite Wittgenstein’s complaint, Ravel refused to amend the concerto—and Wittgenstein premiered the work in Vienna on November 27, 1931. Ravel wanted the piece to be more than a parlor trick. “In a work of this kind,” he wrote, “it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands. For the same reason, I resorted to a style that is much nearer to that of the more solemn kind of traditional concerto.” Although it differs from the traditional concerto in its three-movement form, Ravel creates the aural illusion that both hands are involved. The piano traverses the breadth of the keyboard freely, generating such rich melody and harmony that if one closes one’s eyes, it is impossible to believe that the work is composed for left hand alone.
~ By Jennifer Glagov
Claude Debussy: La Mer (The Sea)
“You’re unaware, maybe, that I was intended for the noble career of a sailor and have only deviated from that path thanks to the quirks of fate. Even so, I’ve retained a sincere devotion to the sea,” Debussy wrote to a friend in 1903, as he began work on La mer. Debussy’s connection to the ocean began in his childhood, when he made several extended visits to Cannes. Interestingly, the lure of the sea worked so powerfully on Debussy that he ended up writing much of La mer in the mountains, safely beyond the pull of the ocean’s insistent presence. Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, when describing Debussy’s study, recalled, “I … remember a certain colored engraving by Hokusai [a renowned Japanese artist; Durand is probably referring to Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa], representing the curl of a giant wave. Debussy was particularly enamored of this wave. It inspired him while he was composing La mer, and he asked us to reproduce it on the cover of the printed score.”
Debussy subtitled the work “Three Symphonic Sketches,” but they are clearly finished movements, each with its own character. “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (From dawn to noon on the sea) captures the ocean’s ever-shifting movement from sunrise to the midday sun. At first the water is calm and glassy, with sunlight shimmering on its surface; as morning breezes pick up, the waters rise and fall with increasing energy. The lighthearted “Jeux de vagues” (Play of the waves) captures the mercurial quality of waves as they form, build, subside, and sometimes crash into one another. “Dialog du vent et de la mer” (Dialog between the wind and the sea) begins with hints of the ocean’s awesome, violent power. Sonic tidal currents flow in and out, one moment quiet, the next raucous. In the closing measures, Debussy features a chorus of triumphant brasses. Throughout all three movements, Javanese pentatonic scales serve as both the harmonic and melodic foundation of La mer, rather than the Western diatonic scales more familiar to Debussy’s audience.
Although considered a standard of orchestral repertoire today, La mer received decidedly mixed reactions at its 1905 premiere. The negative reaction of the audience, however, had little to do with the music; rather, they hissed and booed Debussy in outrage over his scandalous private life, which had resulted in the very public suicide attempt of one of his former lovers. Camille Chevillard, who conducted the premiere, was also responsible for its poor reception. Although praised by many, including Debussy, for his abilities with established works, such as the music of Beethoven, Chevillard had little interest in, or aptitude for, new music. (During rehearsal for La mer, according to musicologist Simon Tresize, “Debussy complained of [Chevillard’s] lack of artistry and suggested he should have been ‘a wild beast tamer.’”) To make matters worse, bad weather on the day of the premiere kept many concertgoers away.
Critical reception varied as well; some were captivated by La mer’s rich sonorities, but most reviewers were baffled by its unfamiliar structure and sound. Unlike the Germanic music of Mozart or Wagner, with its clearly defined architecture and harmonic language, La mer’s construction is based on a collage of colors and moods. The audience, unaccustomed to Debussy’s use of non-Western scales, and chords based on intervals other than thirds, had no point of reference for absorbing or understanding this new music.
One critic wrote, “For the first time in listening to a descriptive work of Debussy’s, I have the impression of beholding not nature, but a reproduction of nature, marvelously subtle, ingenious and skillful, no doubt, but a reproduction for all that … I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea.” In contrast, an admirer of La mer wrote, “The three symphonic pieces … express … those ever delightful frolics in which [the sea] exhausts her divine energy, and the lively interplay of water and light that so bewitches us: the magic spell of foam and wave and spray, swirling mists and splashes of sunlight … their structure, though slight, is logical and strong, as in all of Debussy’s compositions.”
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz
NOTE: The program notes attributed to Elizabeth Schwartz are published here by the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com. Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and music historian based in Portland, OR. She has been a program annotator for more than 20 years, and her clients include the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and Portland Piano International. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).