Ravel and Debussy, aglow at the MSO
Through guest conductor Olari Elts, soprano Karen Wierzba and the Milwaukee Symphony, the French composers cast their spells.
Guest conductor Olari Elts made his MSO debut with the former’s Shéhérazade and Rapsodie espagnole and the latter’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Iberia (No. 2 from Images).
Soprano Karen Wierzba sang Shéhérazade — which has nothing to do with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and next to nothing to do with Arabian Nights. Ravel set three mysterious-East poems by Tristan Klingsor (you might want to print the texts and translations, which are not in the program) and orchestrated the songs.
Ravel through-composed the songs in arioso style. The vocal line sometimes glides atop the troughs and crests of shimmering instrumental waves. More often, it weaves and twines with tendrils of orchestral sound through the three songs, often in sensual close harmony with the solo woodwinds.
The music demands virtuosa singing of a different sort; Wierzba faced no challenging coloratura flights or dramatic climaxes. These songs, with their sense of heightened speech and many repeated or sustained tones, require rich timbre and keen awareness of tone, pitch and the deliciousness of each syllable. Wierzba understood all of that, made each sound beautiful, and privileged us to savor the music along with her.
Debussy’s Prélude and Ravel’s Rapsodie work the same way. They don’t build arguments, they cast spells, luxurious spells. These charms only work when the music takes on the resonant presence wrought of exquisite tuning and balance and a certain volatility. They’re like Klimt paintings; the light can shift, and paint suddenly shines like gold.
To continue with the visual arts analogy, Ravel here behaves like a Cubist painter as he unfolds and rearranges familiar types of Spanish musical idioms to make something startlingly new from them.
In these works, principals Sonora Slocum (flute), Todd Levy (clarinet), Katherine Young Steele (oboe), Matthew Annin (horn), Margaret Butler (English horn), Theodore Soluri (bassoon) and concertmaster Frank Almond brought the same keen awareness to their playing that Wierzba brought to her singing. Throughout the evening, they were at the forefront of an orchestra that shared in the sensual spell it created.
Iberia stood apart from the rest of the program. Debussy, in Through Streets and Lanes, The Fragrances of the Night and The Morning of a Feast Day, is more cheerfully illustrative. In the distance beyond the bustle of the lanes, we hear strumming guitars (in harp simulation) in the background. At the end of a dreamy night, morning bells chime and lead us directly into antic preparations for a holiday. It’s a Frenchman in Spain, not so different, in its jaunty attitude, from Gershwin’s An American in Paris.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. For further information, visit the MSO website.
Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to the 2012-13 Season, sponsored by the Florentine Opera. And each Tuesday, consult the TCD On Stage for the week’s events.