ASO principal guest conductor Doinald Runnicles. (credit: Simon Pauly)

Review: Runnicles leads Atlanta Symphony in a colorful French excursion

Mark Gresham | 24 MAY 2019

On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of early 20th-century French music by Milhaud, Canteloube and Debussy, led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, and featuring soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel as guest soloist. The program will be repeated on Saturday at Symphony Hall.

Runnicles and the ASO opened the evening with Le bœuf sur le toit (“The Ox on the Roof”) by Darius Milhaud. The music was originally conceived as a score for a silent film by Charlie Chaplin. When that project didn’t pan out, it became the score for a surrealist ballet by Jean Cocteau. The title comes from a Brazilian tango.

The entire work, in fact, is heavily influenced by Brazilian music, which Milhaud experienced directly while living in that country for two years during World War I, quoting nearly 30 choros — a genre of instrumental Brazilian popular music — in the course of its 18 minutes. Hence the subtitle in the composer’s published transcription for piano, four hands: “Cinéma-Symphonie sur des Airs Sud-Américains.”

The piece is an extensive rondo, which opens with a lively principal tune, marked “Thème du Barman”:

As catchy as that tune may be, it is so often repeated that the listener might want to call the work a redundo rather than a rondo. Despite the fact that modulating through all 12 of the major keys, repeating the theme in each, and most of the minor keys is part of Milhaud’s witty intent — a Frenchman’s nose-thumbing satire of a didactic German pedagogical practice of the day, the piece is just too long and stretched-out at 18 minutes as a concert piece. Editing it down to about eight minutes would make it into a really fun overture, without feeling like the Groundhog Day-like returns to the Barman’s Theme might never end.


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Composer Joseph Canteloube was born in the industrial township of Annonay in southern France in1879. He was a student of Vincent d’Indy and became a specialist in French provincial folk songs. He is best remembered for his five-volume Chants d’Auvergne (“Songs from the Auvergne”) from which the ASO performed six excerpts in this concert with soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel.

Kim-Lillian Strebel., soprano (credit: Aaron-Davies)_thumb

Kim-Lillian Strebel., soprano (credit: Aaron-Davies)_thumb

Strebel has performed with the ASO in each of the last four seasons; in 2016 Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, in 2017 Faure’s Requiem and in 2018 J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 80 (“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”). But Thursday’s performance of Cantaloube’s Chants d’Auvergne was her best outing of the four, both vocally – the music was keenly suited to her clear, rounded soprano – and in terms of an outstanding stage presence.

With their origins in the Auvergne province, the Chants d’Auvergne are not in Parisian French, of course, but in the local Occitan language – more specifically, the Auvergnat dialect, although there is some debate among linguists as to whether Auvergnat is actually a dialect of Occitan or an independent language in its own right. Whichever the case, it is a language at risk of disappearing, with an estimated 80,000 speakers of Auvergnat total in the 21st century and fewer who can read and write it.

The six songs performed Thursday were different from the three originally programmed, so there was an insert in the program book indicating the changes. One of the curiosities of the assemblage was that a lovely unaccompanied solo of almost two dozen bars, played by ASO principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, preceded the second song, “Pastourelle” (“Pastorale,” Book II, No. 1) but it actually belongs before an entirely different song in the collection: “Ound’ onorèn gorda?” (Book I, No. IIIb, one of the “Trois Bourées”). The oboe solo ends on an “A” and the two songs both begin with “A” as their tonic – just in different modes – so the patch works.


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The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of Claude Debussy: four excerpts from his two books of Préludes, as orchestrated by British composer Colin Matthews, and La mer (“The Sea”).

I’ve played several of the Préludes back in the day, and have long been convinced of their capacity for being orchestrated, but I’m not a hundred percent convinced of these orchestrations by Matthews. in particular, the opening “Minstrels” did not seem to capture the essential character of the piece, particularly the piano solo version’s reasonable attempt at emulating a lick or two on a banjo, which is completely lost to me in this orchestration. the other three Préludes fared a little better.

La mer, by contrast is an outstanding example of Debussy’s capacity for orchestral color and sweep, even if the secrets behind the details are best revealed by detailed study of the score, after which the hearing goes beyond enjoyment to revelation, as it does with the scores of Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov and Respighi, just to name a few more composers in that same league of composers who are also great creators of vivid orchestrations. But if you can’t study a printed score in depth, you can still enjoy the experience of the evocative sound-painting. That’s where it all ultimately lies anyway.


• AN IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT •

For those who are wondering: There was indeed a pre-concert recital at 6:45pm before Thursday’s concert, and I was prepared to review it, but did not arrive in time thanks to the failure of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system. I arrived at the appointed stop for the #36 bus 15 minutes ahead of its scheduled arrival at 5:52pm. No bus ever arrived. When the next #36 bus came by, which was supposed to be 30 minutes later, it was late, and it blew right past me at full speed without stopping — despite my leaning out into the road with outstretched arm and waving it and transit card in hand.

I was going to walk the half mile home and drive, but then caught a #816 on a cross-street on the way, which took me all the way downtown, just in time to see from the top of the stairs a northbound train leave the platform. An announcement came that the next northbound train would be delayed. I arrived at the Symphony Hall box office at 7:33pm, as the pre-concert recital was ending, versus the 6:15pm arrival time had the first #36 bus shown up. Don’t tell me to take Uber or Lyft, as this is not how a viable public transit system should behave.

Since I cannot offer you a review of what others described as a wonderful recital, I will offer you the next best thing: an embedded Facebook video of the entire recital. You will be able to view it as long as the video remains tagged as “public” on Facebook. The program list is below the video. Enjoy. Maybe you can even view the entire 46 minutes and 30 seconds before the next bus deigns to show up.

The final pre-concert chamber recital of the 2018-19 season. [ASO/Facebook]

Chamber Recital Program & Musicians:

Maurice Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (1905) (arranged for two marimbas by Safri Duo/Joseph Petrasek) Joe Petrasek and Michael Stubbart, marimbas.
Erwin Schulhoff: Concertino for flute, viola and double bass (1925) – 1. Andante con moto 2. Furiant. Allegro furioso 3. Andante 4. Rondino. Allegro gaio – Robert Cronin, flute; Jessica Oudin, viola; Joe McFadden, bass.
Robert Lannoy: Prélude; Eugene Bozza: Andantino – Nathan Zgonc, trombone; Jeremy Buckler, trombone; Brian Hecht, bass trombone.
Claude Debussy: Trois Chansons (1862-1918) arr. for brass quartet – I. “Lord! Lovely hast thou made my dear!”; II. “Whene’er the tambourine I hear”; III. “Cold winter, villain that thou art.” Nathan Zgonc, trombone; Jeremy Buckler, trombone; Brian Hecht, bass trombone; Michael Moore, tuba.

. . .

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