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Aloft Yet Grounded in Debussy’s World


What did the fin-de-siècle Paris salons regard as “rhapsody”? Was it eerie moonlit scenes and opium dreams of Verlaine and Beaudelaire, poetic flights of fancy of Byron and Wordsworth, exotic transports of Henri Rousseau, Turner’s glowing canvases, Whistler’s turbulent seascapes? For Claude Debussy, breaking out of his petit-bourgeois milieu and struggling for recognition in the highly competitive cauldron of Paris music circles, all played roles in shaping his fluid sense of form. That, and soupçons of exotica from Moorish Spain, African masques, Chinese gongs and Javanese gamelan contributed to Debussy’s emerging “impressionism.” On a brisk and bright April Fools’ Day with Harvard Yard dotted with daffodils and crocuses, The Boston Conservatory Orchestra brought French rhapsody into focus, illuminating the Gothic halls of Sanders Theatre with two brief Debussy rhapsodies for solo winds, a lengthy fantasy for piano, and capped the afternoon with Ravel’s explosive Rapsodie Espagnole.

First, conductor Bruce Hangen put his charges through their paces with a lively “Haffner,” Mozart’s Symphony 35 in D. Hangen’s brisk attack opened the Allegro con spirito, and his stylish expressiveness elicited the innate turmoil and odd charm of the music, with its asymmetrical phrasing, inner voices of oboe and French horn, and devilishly rising trills. The playful, courtly Andante and dynamic, charging Menuetto showed Mozart’s boundless energy and wit. Hangen’s hell-for-leather Presto captured the requisite tympani thunder, surging strings, and a touch of Mozart’s pique at deadline pressures heaped upon him by Papa Leopold. Hangen’s podium power never wavered; he brought the movement home in under 3:30 (did Toscanini beat that?) and nobody broke a sweat.

Debussy’s Fantasy for Piano & Orchestraconcerto-shaped with three movements, is an early work (1890) he never heard performed, having self-critically withdrawn it from competition and publication. The integration of the orchestral and piano roles is pervasive, saturated thematically. Max Levinson (the first of three Conservatory faculty soloists) played with warmth and a fine ear for balance, entwining glissando-rich themes with winds here, strings there, an oboe encounter, noble French horn sustains. Hangen and he struck a fine rapport throughout. Pentatonic passages of dashing woodland chases with horns and satyrs hint at Schoenberg’s later borrowings (eg. Opus 9), as a descending Oriental melody in the Allegro Molto does at Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Debussy needn’t have fretted about his legacy.

The Rhapsody for Saxophone & Orchestra (1901-11) was another matter. Unable to dissociate its role from the military bands for which Adolphe Sax invented it, Debussy never warmed to the alto saxophone; his reluctant acceptance of a prepaid commission from a Mrs. Hall of Boston found him hemming and hawing a decade later. Kenneth Radnofsky handled the restless romanza with his usual aplomb, playing the elegant if emotionally detached themes arch and dry over lush tremolo strings. In truth, I find little excitement or passion in this piece – perhaps as I’ve heard ‘too much’ saxophone jazz — and the soloist gets to play barely half its 10 minutes.

Another misterioso solo movement, the First Rhapsody for Clarinet & Orchestra (1910) fares far more smoothly: percussion, cymbals, and two harps enrich the palette, and the composition engages emotionally. Clarinettist Jonathan Cohler played like a Bird of Paradise, in hushed sylvan calls and response and airing delicate accelerando/rubato licks; his occasional sostenuti hang seductively, dewdrops on a Venus flytrap. Daring open fifths in an early melody passage presage Copland’s concerto. Hangen nudges the tempo shifts deftly, as swirling cadenzas of glissandi lead to a deep solo passage and a final onrushing tutti.

Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) concocts exotic brass (gongs, cymbals, muted trumpets) and mid-eastern hand percussion (castanets, tambourine) into Andalusian dances (Malagueña, Habañera), pouring a heady potion that stirs the blood as sure as crocuses poking up and the baring of bellies and tanktops in the Yard. (Hard to imagine Ravel didn’t get to Spain until 15 years later.) Hangen’s panache was to the fore, communicating to the orchestra with tiny ticks or two-handed sweeps. Ravel transforms and masks a simple descending four-note theme, over and over, from pianissimo winking stars over the Alhambra to a rip-roaring street fair in Sevilla. Now we knew rapture!

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.

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