The two works on this CD make an apt and welcome pair. First we have Ravel’s sumptuous three-song cycle about the mysteries of love and fantasies of exotic lands. Then we have his one-act opera that takes place in a land that, to French people at the time, was beckoningly exotic, and whose title might be freely translated “The Nutty and Delightful Things That Can Happen in Spain in Just One Hour.” The opera presents some quick-moving events in the lives of a clockmaker’s wife and the four wildly different men with whom she is variously involved (one being her husband). The CD is officially vol. 4 of a series covering Ravel’s “orchestral works,” a phrase that here clearly means “works with orchestra.” (The two piano concertos and Tzigane are presumably scheduled for some future volume.) The Stuttgart orchestra plays very capably throughout, but the star of the CD is mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac.
The week from Sunday July 5 to Friday July 10 at Tanglewood afforded the opportunity to compare one of the world’s great orchestras (the BSO), most of whose members have honed their style and sense of ensemble over many years, to an ad hoc group of very talented young pre- or new-professional players who have been cobbled together into an orchestra in a few days. Regular readers know my inclination toward such ensembles; I seek out the TMC Orchestra concerts more regularly than I do those of the BSO, and last summer’s appearance of the National Youth Orchestra was a highlight of the season.
The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them.
I’d have to affect an especially severe attitude to deny that this was a rewarding summer at Tanglewood, although the token single program by a period instrument group, which is always well-attended and in fact important to Tanglewood, if the festival is to represent music-making as it is today, was missing, and I found rather little to attract me into the Music Shed. The post-Levine formula of revered white-haired visitors is wearing thin, and now that a music director has been appointed, there is no longer the titillation of a possible music director emerging from one of the younger guest conductors. The whit heads will carry on through the next seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, until Andris Nelsons, the Music Director Designate, takes over full-time…if that actually happens, we begin to wonder.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a distinguished tradition which has continued since its opening in 1966, began most splendidly with a Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff program led by Stéphane Denève with Garrick Ohlsson joining him for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. This was my first visit to SPAC, so I’ll have to discuss what I heard in the context of the Center’s remarkable acoustics. Designed to seat 5200 people, the Center is slightly larger than the Music Shed at Tanglewood, but it has a surprisingly intimate feeling to it, as one traverses the grounds and descends the grassy slope, where the picnicking crowd can sit and hear the music very well—without amplification, as far as I could see or hear. It is only when one actually enters the hall and sees the orchestra dwarfed in the two-story space that one realizes just how vast it is. The stage is deep, and that has its own effect on the sound, making for a sense of spaciousness and, well, depth, which creates a rich semi-independent back-space for the winds, brass, and percussion. This interacts most impressively with the forward wave of the strings. In general the sound is bright and clear on the top without ever seeming harsh or wiry.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center presents the Philadelphia Orchestra’s three-week residency in tandem with an outstanding chamber music program directed by André-Michel Schub.
I regret that I could not attend a pre=season concert in June, the Buffalo Philharmonic under their Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who has garnered a great deal of respect in the musical world for her work with the orchestra, or last Thursday’s Philadelphia program, endowed with the catchy title, “The Lure of Paris,” in which Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined Stéphane Denève in a program of Bernstein, Gershwin, and Ravel. Many of the programs carry this popular appeal even further.