Tom Strini

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.

By - Oct 6th, 2012 02:00 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

Leon Bakst’s rendering of Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (1890-1950), in the ballet “Afternoon of a Faun.” Nijinsky created the ballet in 1912, on Debussy’s music from 1894. Public domain image via Wikipedia Commons.

The exotic, gleaming artifice of Art Nouveau, more than the Impressionism of Monet et al., came to mind Friday night during the Milwaukee Symphony’s Ravel and Debussy program.

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.


Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (1907).

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.

When Elts, with his exceedingly serious demeanor, downcast eyes and ramrod back, first came on, I wondered about his sympathy for music that is so much about scent and feel. Not to worry. His back remained straight as he conducted, but his arms and hands proved poetically supple as he described the music to his players through his gestures and guided them with utter clarity and assurance. He put his musical and personal warmth where it did Ravel and Debussy the most good.

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.



0 thoughts on “Ravel and Debussy, aglow at the MSO”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Looking forward to hearing it tonight!!

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us