Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ravel Week

This past weekend, we of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang a score that had very few problems of foreign diction and declaiming text. It was Daphnis & Chloe, at nearly an hour long the biggest thing Maurice Ravel wrote. Composed over three years in the early 1920s for the Ballets Russes, it is still occasionally staged as a ballet but more frequently heard in the cut-down form of two suites. At Powell Symphony Hall, under the baton of guest conductor Stéphane Denève, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed the complete work as Ravel himself conceived it: a "choreographic symphony," with an English translation of the stage scenario projected above the stage in sync with the music.

In this work, the chorus serves as an extra section of the orchestra. Instead of lyrics, we sing notes over such sketchy textual suggestions as "a" or "lips closed," and sometimes no specific directions at all. For reasons of dynamics and color variations, we sometimes changed the neutral syllable to "oo" or "oh," sometimes added an aggressive glottal stop or even a consonant to start the syllable (such as "da" or "ya"). Scant weeks after the demanding Russian diction of Stravinsky's Les Noces, it was a relief to have no worries about the text. Also unlike the Stravinsky, this score furnished the chorus with extensive rests, during which we could sit back and enjoy the lush, impressionistic music in which Ravel the orchestral colorist showed himself at the peak of his mastery. Themes of great beauty, scenes of tenderness and awe, wit and eroticism, horror and triumph filled the stage with an all but visible dramatic presence. The huge orchestra, wedged into every inch of available real estate, provided not only an incredible range of tone color but also extremes of loud and soft running the gamut from "deafening" to "Wait, have I gone deaf?" And in the heart of it all, the chorus gets a chance to show off its ability to sing an extended passage of tricky, chromatic music in tune. Wow. What an amazing thing to be part of!

Maestro Denève deserves a huge share of the credit for making these under-attended concerts (broadcast live on public radio Saturday night) an artistic success. You might not guess it from his easy-going charm and his Penn Jillette-like mop of springy hair, which wanted constant shaking or brushing out of the conductor's face; but Denève brings to the podium both the authority to control every detail of this vast and subtle score with great precision, and the energy to infuse it with colossal emotional power. He is technician enough that he can sing his way through a rapid flute solo in word-perfect solfege; he is musician enough that he can guide hundreds of players and singers through an hour's worth of tricky cues and cutoffs, constantly changing meters and tempi, and sudden contrasts of texture and loudness without forgetting that it must all sound spontaneous—like a watercolorist managing both to blend his colors smoothly and to prevent them from running together in an indistinct blur. I particularly enjoyed the way he audibly breathed and vocalized as he cued each orchestral entrance. His passion for this piece was amazing.

Also on the program were a couple of piano pieces by Schumann, orchestrated by Ravel, and Schumann's piano concerto with acclaimed Schumann expert Eric Le Sage playing the solo. I only heard these works during Thursday evening's concert-order rehearsal. The "Carnaval" pieces were lightweight works, nothing special about them except the impression I sometimes got that Ravel was trying to imitate the better facets of Schumann's style of orchestration. As for the concerto, Denève and Le Sage engaged that familiar piece in a way that brought heretofore unnoticed details into view through the transparent surface of their keenly detailed, restrained interpretation.

My final kudos for Ravel Week go to the Grand Center Arts Academy, currently serving grades 6-8 across Grand Blvd. from Powell Hall. GCAA, sited in a pair of adjacent buildings that have been brought together in one through a $24 million rehab project, furnished the Symphony Chorus with a gorgeous, comfortable, and much-needed gathering space while pianist Le Sage was in possession of Powell's green room. If your kids have talent in the fine arts, you should check this place out. It's really cool. And I'm told it will eventually go all the way up to grade 12.

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