The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) presented an all-Ravel program on Thursday, January 31, Friday, February 1, and Saturday February 2. The concerts opened with “Alborada del Gracioso”, which Ravel original composed in 1905 as a solo piano piece, the fourth of his five work Miroirs suite. More than a simple transcription for orchestra, his 1918 reimagining of the piece transformed it with the signature rhapsodic orchestration for which he is glorified and which the BSO presented with great integrity under the baton of Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink.
In the middle-of-the-program “concerto slot” was 1903’s Shéhérazade, a cycle of three songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Shéhérazade is a great example of Ravel’s exotic style works, set to the One Thousand and One Nights-themed poetry of Tristan Klingsor. Rather favor the soloist, the work showcases her and the orchestra rather equally and somewhat subdued, true to the ethereal, mysterious nature of the music. Renowned mezzo-sopranno Susan Graham (born in my home state of New Mexico!) delivered the French poetry with sensuous reverence, even coming dressed to the nines in a long flowing Arabesque dress and wrap.
Concluding the evening was Ravel’s score to the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, based on a Greek romance and commissioned bySergei Diaghilev of Ballet Russes fame. Far from any kind of incidental music, this is Ravel’s longest and most ambitious work1 at an hour long and featuring a giant orchestra: 10 parts for strings alone, expanded winds, percussion of all sorts including wind machine, two harps, off-stage instruments, and wordless choir. The wordless choir adds interesting color to the piece, a superb of example of Ravel the timbre magician’s cherished orchestration. Ravel described the ballet, which when presented in concert is usually in one of two suites, as a “choreographic symphony” (see the program notes). Haitink delivered the complete work, which was delightful if feeling a bit long without the choreography. I did not feel the complete score worked as well on its own as say a Beethoven or Shostakovich symphony devised from its inception as a concert piece with an integrated emotional contour.
I enjoyed the program immensely, and especially appreciated Maestro Haitink’s gracious nature. The program featured especially lush flute passages in Shéhérazade’s “La flûte enchantée” (The Echanted Flute) and throughout Daphnis et Chloé, and Haitink invited the BSO’s principal flutist Elizabeth Row to the front of the orchestra to take her own bow. As far as Susan Graham goes, I hope that the audience will take the time to hear her in concerts that more readily showcase her vocal prowess, but I admired her subdued and faithful performance as a true artist. I was also interested in how the audience exhibited the polite training that we have been in class developed around the turn of the twentieth century. For example, when several “wayward” audience members applauded after the first song in Shéhérazade, Haitink raised his hands slightly to remind them of the proper etiquette to show admiration only at the conclusion of multi-movement work. I am starting to lose my conviction in the universal truth of this imperative, something on which I hope to reflect more as I attend concerts in the coming weeks.
1 Ravel is not known for lengthy works. According to the concert’s program notes, his musical ideas come out “perfect” and do not require the same Mahlerian development, something which gives me hope for my own composition, as I tend to labor over every bar yet produce shorter, compact works