Denéve, New World Symphony capture Ravel’s life in words and music

By Lawrence Budmen

"Maurice Ravel---A Musical Journey" was presented by the New World Symphony Saturday night.

“Maurice Ravel: A Musical Journey” was presented by the New World Symphony Saturday night.

The New World Symphony’s composer portrait concerts have offered a series of diverting overviews of some of the great creative artists in music history. These programs have served both as tasting menus for novice listeners and showcases for the composers’ less well-known works (as well as trademark scores) for the sophisticated concertgoer. 

On Saturday night at Miami Beach’s New World Center, the orchestral academy took the concept to a new level. “Maurice Ravel – A Musical Journey” was a musical play about the French composer’s life and experiences, interspersed with a wide array of his compositions. 

Playwright-director Didi Balle has created several of these composer monodramas for the Philadelphia Orchestra in collaboration with the French conductor Stéphane Denéve  who is their principal guest conductor. With Denéve on the New World podium, Ravel’s music was superbly articulated. Actor Scott Lowell, best known for the cable television series Queer as Folk, played Ravel. Seeming to embody the elegant image of the composer from historic photos and sporting French accented English, Lowell was a winsome guide through the composer’s life. 

Balle’s intelligently conceived dramatic biography ranged through Ravel’s shy, dreamy childhood to his discovery of American jazz and friendship with George Gershwin to the final tragedy of a degenerative condition that rendered Ravel unable to play the piano and caused difficulty in his even putting notes to music paper. 

“Remembering Childhood, Dreaming the Past,”  the program’s first part, encompassed Ravel’s works inspired by children’s tales and youthful friends. The opening scene from the opera L’enfant et les sortiilèges introduced the richly expressive mezzo Kelley O’Connor as a mother scolding her child for neglecting his homework. In the ensuing tantrum scene, Kara Dugan projected the boy’s immature cruelty. Denéve brought out the splashy dissonance in the instrumental writing of this unique score.

Pianist Elizabeth Dorman began Pavane pour une infant défunte from one of the hall’s auxiliary stages in the original 1899 solo version before the orchestra took up the main melody in Ravel’s 1910 orchestration. The two versions finally melded together. 

Lowell’s harrowing description of Ravel’s service in World War I as an ambulance driver at the front and his hiding for days in a forest without food after his vehicle broke down set the stage for the Menuet from Le tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s memorial to six of his fallen comrades.  Denève draws a special Gallic sound from the New World players that is light, iridescent and buoyant. Marked by exquisite wind playing, a shimmer on the strings and careful attention to dynamics, the excerpt was phrased with grace while still encompassing the music’s underlying elegiac roots. A broadly paced “Le jardin féerique” from Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) concluded the segment on a stirring note.

“Something New, Something Blue” brought Ravel’s fascination with the sights and sounds of the Roaring 20′s to the fore. Inspired by a visit to Harlem’s famous Cotton Club with Gershwin (where Ravel heard the Duke Ellington Band), the Piano Concerto in G Major seamlessly melds jazz and the blues into a quintessentially French musical fabric. Kyu Yeon Kim’s performance of the concerto’s opening movement at first seemed too dreamy and straightlaced but soon she took off with pounding torrents of notes sweeping across the keyboard. Denéve’s taut pacing gave full rein to the trumpet’s bluesy riffs. 

With Dorman accompanying, tenor Aaron Crouch’s rapid-fire declamation of the text and powerful top range set ablaze “La pintade” from the song cycle Histoires naturelles, a score American audiences embraced after it was initially received with shock and scorn by the elite socialites at the Paris premiere. Kevin Chen’s slurred portamento and bluesy tinged phrasing captured the essence of the second movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major. The duet of the Chinese teapot and the English teacup from L’enfant et les sortiléges found Crouch belting like a jazz nightclub vocalist in top mode while Dugan’s mezzo tones were more refined. Denève turned the ensemble into a bonafide dance band in this quirky foxtrot.  

Kim was totally attuned to the French accented dance rhythms in a lengthy excerpt from the Concerto in D Major for Piano Left Hand, written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I. Only the bright, limited sound of the house Yamaha hindered her brilliant display. 

“Exotic Elsewheres,” the three-part concert’s final section, dealt with Ravel’s travels and musical depictions of foreign lands and cultures. O’Connor’s multi-hued timbre and huge vocal range captured the sensual allure of “Asie” from Shéhérazade, her arpeggiated vocal acrobatics imbued with throbbing bite. Denève’s crisp rhythm and the languor of the solo bassoon emphasized  percussive Spanish guitar like strokes in Alborada del gracioso. 

Dugan’s agility and noble shaping of the vocal line captured the exoticism of “Nahandove” from Chansons madécasses. The depth of Meredith Bates’s cello sonority, John Wilson’s virtuosic piano flourishes and the high range of Johanna Gruskin’s flute underlined the text. In the “Danse générale from Daphnis and Chloe, Denève’s headlong tempo and a full panoply of orchestral colors  brought the three hour program to an exciting climax.

Clyde Scott, Michael Matamoros and Shawn Wright’s projections of Parisian society, flowers in bloom, the New York skyline and exotic locales enhanced the evening’s theatricality without unduly distracting attention from the music. Dona Granata’s colorful costumes, particularly for the female vocalists, and Luke Kritzeck’s striking lighting contributed to a nearly flawless fusion of musical biography and theater.

The New World Symphony’s final chamber music concert of the season features John Luther Adams’ The Light Within, Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench and Schubert’s String Quintet with guest cellist Sharon Robinson 2 p.m. April 22 at New World Center in Miami Beach.  nws.edu;  305-673-3331

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Mon Apr 16, 2018
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