Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Orchestra Now Performs Lyadov, Stravinsky, Ravel and Mussorgsky

On Sunday afternoon I went to Symphony Space on upper Broadway to hear the Orchestra Now, led by its resident conductor Zachary Schwartzman, perform a program of works that all had some relationship, no matter how tenuous, to the Ballets Russes

The concert opened with Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909).  Oddly enough, Lyadov is most famous for what he did not compose.  Based on the testimony of his colleagues, he had to have been the laziest and least productive of all the major Russian composers; eventually he became something of a legend for his inability to see through to completion the majority of the musical projects on which he had embarked.  The most famous example, of course, was his fiasco with the Ballets Russes.  Commissioned by Diaghilev to write the original score for The Firebird, Lyadov so endlessly procrastinated that finally Diaghilev, in exasperation, fired him and handed the commission to Stravinsky for whom it proved a breakthrough success.  Though there's no evidence Lyadov ever actually accepted Diaghilev's commission, the story well illustrates the composer's character.  He never managed to complete a full length work (the present piece is only about 7 minutes long) and his complete oeuvre is astonishingly limited.  As for The Enchanted Lake itself, it is an abbreviated tone poem, described by the composer as a "fairy tale scene," that is almost somnolent in character.  That's not to suggest, however, that it's at all unpleasant to hear.  Actually, its gentleness and hushed sense of unreality place it firmly in the tradition of Russian Romanticism.

The next work was a suite taken from Stravinsky's Firebird itself.  As mentioned above, the ballet was the then unknown composer's first commission from the Ballets Russes.  The story had already been developed by Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine by the time Stravinsky commenced work on the score.  This was in fact the company's first original score and its success led directly to Stravinsky's later engagements on Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913).  As an early work, The Firebird represents an intermediate period in Stravinsky's career when he had not yet completely freed himself from the Russian Romantic tradition - the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov can easily be distinguished throughout - but was already moving forward in the modernist vein that would become much more apparent in the works immediately following it.

The suite chosen for performance, the 1945, was the last of the three the composer extracted from his ballet.  Of them all, I much prefer the first, the 1910, which is the most faithful to its source. In contrast, the 1945 suite contains orchestral revisions that alter the character of the piece.  To my mind, however, none of the three really does justice to the original work from which they are drawn.

After intermission, the program continued with Ravel's La valse (1919-1920).  Though the piece was originally conceived as a tribute to Johann Strauss and the gaiety of pre-war Vienna, it took on another meaning - no matter how vehemently Ravel may have denied it - when the work finally came to be written in 1919 at a time when Europe was still reeling from the cataclysmic effects of four years of war.  The halcyon days of the Belle Époque that had initially inspired the work seemed impossibly distant from this new vantage point and were looked back upon not so much with nostalgia as with a sense that they had all along been unreal, a veneer thinly covering the strife and discontent that were eventually to rise to the surface and plunge the continent into four years of madness.  Though the piece, which in actuality contains a series of waltzes, begins pleasantly enough, a sense of something not quite right soon makes itself felt, and the work ends with a death-like coda that sounds as if a music box had burst a spring and ended on a false note.  Nevertheless, Ravel himself described the piece as follows:
"Flashes of lightning in turbulent clouds reveal a couple waltzing.  One by one the clouds vanish; a huge ballroom filled by a circling mass is revealed.  The scene gradually becomes illuminated.  The light of chandeliers bursts forth.  An imperial court about 1855."
It was La Valse that ended Ravel's association with the Ballets Russes.  Although Diaghiliev admitted the work was a masterpiece, he then went on to claim that it was not a ballet but "a portrait of ballet."  Ravel was understandably insulted and broke off all contact with the impresario.  So upset was the composer that when he met Diaghilev again years later he wouldn't even shake his hand, an act that led the latter to challenge him to a duel.  One can't blame Ravel for his indignation.  This was one of his finest creations and even today one of his most popular works.

The concert ended with a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb 1922 orchestration (that performed at this concert), but Mussorgsky originally composed it as a virtuoso piano piece.  As such, it was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and the other composers who made up "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of a musical representation of a viewer passing through the exhibit and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.

The Orchestra Now is a "training orchestra" made up of graduate students working toward an advanced degree at Bard College. The group was founded by Bard President Leon Botstein who is also Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra.

No comments:

Post a Comment