Columbus Symphony Takes Us to Paris

Columbus Symphony, November 16-18, Southern Theatre

Alicia Hui, violin; Peter Stafford Wilson, conductor

All of the music on this weekend’s Columbus Symphony program comes from the twentieth century. That’s a line that used to strike terror into the hearts of arts marketers. Dissonant! Modern music! Ugly! We want to be entertained!

Relax.  Where else can you hear music named after a bar? Le bouef sur le toit   (The Cow on the Roof) has been in business in Paris for nearly 100 years. It has moved around a lot, but it’s still there.

Darius Milhaud (1893-1974) may have been a habitué there. His earlier travels took him to Brazil where he was attaché to the French embassy. When not working, Milhaud was enjoying the samba. He enjoyed it so much that his party for orchestra, Le bouef sur le toit, contains no less than thirty sambas in twenty minutes. That rollicking, opening theme repeats throughout the piece, sometimes coming in a minor third higher, sometimes lower.

Milhaud first heard jazz in Harlem during a visit in 1924.  Years later he and his wife escaped World War II and settled at Mills College in California. There Milhaud indulged himself in jazz, a new love, and taught the likes of Burt Bacharach and Dave Brubeck. He didn’t need to teach the samba. His music does it for you.

There was one of those monster concerts in Paris at the august Opera on October 18, 1923 where 41-year-old Igor Stravinsky, having recovered from the notoriety of  Le Sacre du printemps and enjoying the charms of Coco Chanel, conducted the premiere of his Octet for Wind Instruments. The performance was part of the Concerts Koussevitzky, led by the great Russian conductor Serge whose wife financed his work in conducting, concert presentation and publishing. The Concerts, especially at the Palais Garnier (Opera), were the place to be, even in Paris.

Chanel’s lover, composer of pagan ballets, and the auspices of a charismatic Russian maestro, how could the Octet miss?  It didn’t, but nobody jumped for joy. The tight construction was a shock to those expecting the spice and drama of the composer’s earlier works.  He’s a classicist! Stravinsky is accused of copying Mozart, as if that were a bad thing.

On the same program, the premiere of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto got a bit lost; the violin soloist was poorly prepared. (Later, the glamor of this work became evident.) The violin and the orchestra played together almost throughout, and there were abrupt shifts of mood and tempo, the kind of jagged dissonance that kept audiences guessing.

Yes, Prokofiev’s music is restless and loaded with irony; I wouldn’t call it friendly. I find it fascinating, particularly the finale of the first movement when the violin fades to a whisper, supported by treble instruments only, doing a slow, sexy fade.

Ravel never married but had a love of children. Some adults buy sweaters or catcher’s mitts. Ravel gave the kids music. His charming Mother Goose, a suite in five pieces for children, was written for brother/sister Mimi and Jean Godebski, ages 5 and 7. Ravel hoped the Godebski children would play the premiere, but two other kids were front and center in Paris on April 20, 1910: Genevieve Durony and Jeanne Leleu, both 7 years old. To them, the composer wrote:

“When you are a great virtuosa and I either an old fogey, covered with honors, or else completely forgotten, you will perhaps have pleasant memories of having given an artist the very real joy of hearing a work of his, one of a rather special nature, interpreted exactly as it should be.”

Later, the piano version was orchestrated for ballet and first danced in 1912. (Jerome Robbins created a dance on Ravel’s score in 1975.)

Either version is a delight. Tom Thumb gets lost in the woods; a Chinese empress dances; and Beauty befriends the Beast, a beast who plays the bassoon.

If you want deep emotion, wait for Beethoven and Mahler. They’re coming. For Technicolor grace and fun, come to the Southern Theatre this weekend.

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