Mark Gresham | 7 DEC 2020
Airing from Thursday evening until Sunday evening, this past weekend’s virtual concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano and featuring mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, was devoted entirely to the music of Maurice Ravel. It was the penultimate subscription concert for 2020.
The program opened with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Originally a six-movement suite for solo piano, composed between 1914 and 1917, Ravel himself orchestrated four of the movements (“Prélude,” “Forlane,” “Menuet” and “Rigaudon”) in 1919 – the version performed in this concert.
A tombeau is a musical composition or a poem which commemorates the death of a notable individual. In this instance the movements are dedicated to the memory of a handful of the composer’s friends who had died fighting in World War I. Ravel himself served in the French military as a driver, and was sent to the front lines at the infamous Battle of Verdun, fought in 1916 from February 21 to December 18 – 302 days in all, the longest of the war, with a total of nearly 715,000 combined casualties, a little more than half of them on the French side.
Nevertheless, Le tombeau de Couperin is lighthearted in character, paying homage musically to keyboard suites of the French Baroque period in general, not only Francois Couperin or the two centuries of noted musicians of the Couperin family.
Despite the Baroque homage, it’s Ravel’s early 20th-century Frenchness that shines through. a ebullient and sometimes reflective kind of neoclassicism with piquant harmonies (especially the Forlane), modal-influenced melodies and translucent textures; a character captured well by Spano and the ASO. When he orchestrated the music, he also reordered then movements, placing the sprightly “Rigaudon” at the end – frankly, a much better choice for finale than the “Menuet” with which the keyboard version concludes.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor joined Spano and the ASO in Ravel’s 1902 song cycle Shéhérazade, in an arrangement for smaller orchestral forces by Ukrainian-American composer Yegor Shevtsov, which well-suited O’Connor’s lucid, expressive mezzo voice. In addition to O’Connor’s voice being captured with detailed presence by the audio, her attendant facial expressions were visually amplified by the video – what video does – giving audience opportunity to see the internalized emotion to a degree that they cannot from even 10 rows back in a live concert, and definitely not from the balcony. The performance captured well the middle-eastern “oriental” flavors of the poetry by Tristan Klingsor (born Léon Leclère) and the attendant exoticism of Ravel’s vocal-orchestral setting.
As with Le tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (“Ma mère l’Oye”) originally written for piano, but in this case as piano duet (one piano, two players). Completed as a five-movement piano duet in 1910, it was transcribed for solo piano in the same year by Ravel’s friend Jacques Charlot, to whom the “Prélude” of Le tombeau de Couperin would come to be dedicated. Ravel himself orchestrated the work in 1911, the form in which it is more frequently heard today, although he expanded the suite onto an 11-movement ballet the very same year.
In this colorful suite of impressions based upon children’s fairy tales for children, Spano and the ASO captured the understated elegance of a pavane in “Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant” (“Pavane of Sleeping Beauty”) with “Petit Poucet” (“Little [Tom] Thumb”) seeming of a more gentle, pastoral character than one might expect from the fairy tale itself. With subtle gong strokes and harmonic parallelisms “Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes” (“Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas”) evoked an east-Asian atmosphere, although a European impression that may feel at certain moments a bit stereotypical by 21st-century “social sensitivity” standards. The opening section of “Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête” (“Conversation of Beauty and the Beast”) felt much like one of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies that was not entirely given up in the movement’s darkly colored “beast” passages. “Le jardin féerique” (“The Fairy Garden”) slowly rose from a quiet chorale-like opening to a bright but not overbearing apotheosis.
The last virtual subscription concert for this calendar year premieres this Thursday (Dec. 10), then a few more programs remain to finish off the year: a television special entitled “The Atlanta Symphony Plays On” (Dec. 13); a streamed holiday concert, “Joy to the World: A Holiday Brass Spectacular” (Dec. 17); and a second televised holiday concert, “The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Holiday Celebration” will air three days, Dec. 19, 20 and 21). The televised programs will also be streamed. Check the ASO website for broadcast and streaming details. The ASO’s plans for early 2021 are expected soon. ■