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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Concert Review: Dreaming in Color

Bernard Haitink and the BSO play Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Susan Graham (left) and Bernard Haitink perform Ravel's Shéhérezade last week at Symphony Hall.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2014 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
For the second of their two concerts this week at Carnegie Hall, Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra chose to devote an evening to the music of Maurice Ravel. This Swiss-born composer is known for precise musical construction and delicate orchestration--with a small but memorable output of works that can have the character of a complicated time-piece. However, this superb pairing of orchestra and conductor found emotional depth in these pieces, achieved through a high standard of performance.

The concert started with Alborada del gracioso, a hellishly difficult piano work transcribed for a vast orchestra. This is Ravel in his Iberian mode, lacing the orchestration with castanets and pizzicato violins that can fool the ears into hearing the thrum of Spanish guitars. Mr. Haitink captured the wry humor throughout this piece, drawing powerful, rhythmic playing from the orchestra that exploded with great force at the work's climax.

Ravel never completed his planned opera on the subject of Scheherezade, the princess whose narratives make up the structure of the 1,001 Arabian Nights. However, he did write Shéhérezade a setting of three poems by the (Wagner-monikered) symbolist who wrote under the name "Tristan Klingsor." For these, the orchestra and Mr. Haitink were joined by mezzo Susan Graham.

Ms. Graham's rich mezzo was ideal for the mysterious opening pages of "Asie," a dream-like travelogue whose Eastern imagery was provided by Ravel's cunning orchestration. Ms. Graham added her own spices to the heady brew, singing sweetly of the mysteries of the Orient and lending a wistful air that suggested to the listener that this was purely a journey of the mind. The flutters and flourishes of woodwinds and strings beguiled the listener, pulling one along with the lush, pliant vocal line.

"La flûte enchantée" is woven from shifting orchestral colors and a sweet solo for the titular instrument, charming and winding its main thematic idea around the listener, intertwining sensually with Ms. Graham's vocal line. The subtle orchestration and dark shift in tone color made "L'Indifferent" a potent conclusion, as Ms. Graham chronicled the sad story of a failed, neglected love affair with meaning behind each word of text. Using her knowledge of the French vocal line, she delivered careful shadings of darkness in this final scene, delicately accompanied by Mr. Haitink.

Most Ravel works for orchestra are generally short. The exception is the full ballet of Daphnis et Chlöe, which stands next to the three early Stravinsky ballets as an important work written for the dancers of the Ballet Russe. Daphnis is usually programmed in excerpt form, using one or both of a pair of concert suites. A full reading, lasting almost an hour and featuring a mixed chorus singing wordless melismas against a massive surge of orchestration is a rare event and a cause for music lovers to celebrate.

Luckily for the assembled audience, this was a full reading of this monumental and endlessly rewarding score. Mr. Haitink conjured Ravel's tableaus of pastoral Greece, with woodwinds and brass filling in the display of colors with delicate brush-strokes of sound. Timpani and exotic percussion provided accents, and flutes (both straight and alto) competed for attention with dueling bird-noises. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang their wordless songs, adding a sense of ceremony and occasion to the magnificent orchestral sunrise that opens this ballet. As the love story of the ballet moved forward, Mr. Haitink emphasized lightness and good humor in key passages, drawing rich colors from his ensemble.

When the pirate attack (yes, there is one) resulted in the abduction of Chlöe, the large orchestra exploded in a burst of savage energy, with Mr. Haitink drawing thunderous chords and crashes with a bare movement of his shoulders or hands. In its last pages work finally reached the sections known so well from the Suite No. 2: the celebration and Danse Generale that ended this performance in a peal of bright final chords.

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