On the heels of my earlier post about the Minnesota Orchestra’s Elgar/Shostakovitch concert last weekend, let me share a few personal reflections about the music that will be performed at Orchestra Hall this weekend, too.
Again, these concerts are very much worth hearing.
The headliner work is Debussy’s La Mer—what an unusual piece this is! We’re often taught to believe that “modern” music began with Stravinsky, and particularly with the riots that broke out when The Rite of Spring first debuted. But this way of thinking ignores the revolutionary impact of his older contemporary Claude Debussy, who in his uniquely French way took a sledgehammer to several centuries of musical tradition. His shimmering chords, uncanny harmonies and highly individualized approach to established musical forms signaled a radical break with the past.
That said, it’s hard to think of someone as being an enfant terrible or shockingly avant garde when the resulting sounds are so bewitchingly beautiful.
La Mer is a perfect example of Debussy’s approach to music making—and a work that is revolutionary and absolutely gorgeous. Many composers wrote sea-inspired music, but Debussy’s approach was new. He set out not to literally depict the ocean in an obvious way, “like a studio-painted landscape,” as he later remarked; instead, he set out to capture a more primordial essence of the sea. He brilliantly captured the notion of fluidity, of capturing large-scale motion, but at the same time imbedding smaller swirls and currents into that larger flow as well. In doing so he presents liquid harmonies and complex rhythms that endlessly appear, evolve and disappear seemingly at a whim. Debussy’s ocean dances with life.
The work also gave birth to one of my favorite musical quips. La Mer’s opening movement is titled, “From Dawn to Mid-Day on the Sea.” When Debussy’s friend Erik Satie first heard it, he remarked, “It is wonderful—I particularly liked the part between 10:30 and quarter to eleven.”
But although La Mer is an unqualified masterpiece, I’m actually looking forward to another piece on the program, for entirely personal reasons.
Some years back, Andrew Litton was closing out the Orchestra’s Sommerfest season with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and I was delighted to take part as one of the singers of the Minnesota Chorale. As a curtain opener, he had programmed Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with himself as the featured soloist.
This is a somewhat rare occurrence—there are relatively few individuals who are both top-rank pianists and conductors, as each discipline requires a very different skill set. Litton is an exception to this rule; he has degrees in both conducting and piano performance from Juilliard.
But even if one has the necessary skills to conduct from the keyboard, it can be difficult to make such a performance really work. For one, it takes extraordinary trust and rapport with the ensemble to keep everyone together and to present a unified interpretation. Even if everyone is together, there is a danger the performance can seem flat and mechanical.
That was not the case here. By the time of the final rehearsal, word had filtered back to us singers that Litton’s performance was anything but mechanical—it was a wonder to behold.
This was a bit disappointing, in that as singers we wouldn’t have a chance to hear the performance—by necessity we would be backstage warming up and running through starts-and-stops while Litton was playing. Even hearing it in rehearsal would be tricky, as again we were scheduled to be doing our own work in a different part of the building while rehearsal was going on.
But we were lucky. Sensing this was too good an opportunity to miss, we were able to shift the timing around… and with the encouragement of our conductor, a few of us were able to slip in the back of the Hall for the final dress rehearsal.
And I am so glad we did.
Ravel is a paradoxical composer. He was extraordinarily specific in his writing—so obsessively detailed that his detractors deride him as a “Swiss watchmaker.” Indeed, his legendary precision can be maddening in a bad performance, making everything seem overdetermined and artificial. But in a great performance, with performers who instinctively grasp Ravel’s intentions, all those details melt away to create a glorious sound-world that’s unlike anything else in music. Music that can in lesser hands seem fussy, artificial and contrived becomes spontaneous, free… and most of all, wonderfully alive. Ravel knew what he was doing, and his detailed instructions give performers the security they need to bring his compositions to life.
And that’s what happened when Andrew Litton began to play—the work came to exuberant life. The jazz-infused outer movements are fantastic, but it was the second movement that melted my heart. The piano part is deceptively simple, pared down to almost nothing. But this is the glorious challenge of this music: to make that delicate piano part really sing. When Litton started playing, it was like Ravel didn’t exist—it was like Litton was alone with his thoughts, gently daydreaming in music. The orchestra was a marvel, sounding like it was a jazz ensemble softly playing an improv in the background. Altogether it was a magical experience, magnified by the fact that the Hall was nearly deserted. It was like as if we were unobtrusively observing a beautiful, but private moment—as if we were watching a loved one relax into a chair, raise his or her head to glance out a sunny window, catch sight of something off in the distance, and smile.
Well, Andrew Litton is coming back this week and performing this piece again. I, for one, can’t wait. I believe tickets are still available….