in: Reviews

August 21, 2012

Mercury Orchestra’s Valiant Two Faces of Ravel

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Only in its fifth season, Mercury Orchestra gives annual musical fetes that are nothing short of miraculous, especially considering the short rehearsal schedule of the ensemble. Auditions occur in mid-June; Sunday and Thursday evening rehearsals culminate in a single performance roughly a month later. The ensemble has made a name for itself in programs that have previously conveyed Strauss (Don Juan) and Mahler (Symphony No. 5) in a single bound, or casually presented Stravinsky (Petrushka) and Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) in the course of a single evening. This year, the Mercury Orchestra performed works by Wagner (Overture to Tannhäuser), Bartók (the complete Miraculous Mandarin) and Brahms (Symphony No.1) with Seraphim Singers on July 21, reviewed here.

At Sanders Theatre on Saturday evening, the second concert for the ensemble marked the centennial of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The orchestra performed the full ballet, paired with Ravel’s orchestral setting of four pieces from Le tombeau de Couperin, originally scored for piano.  Demanding two concerts comprising  such substantial works within a single season speaks both to the dedication and ability of the musicians that constitute the orchestra.

Daphnis et Chloé took center stage on Saturday evening’s performance, not only by virtue of its duration, but also its psychological impact. The work, three years in its construction, is incredibly complex, resulting in one of Ravel’s more intricate and difficult works. Written for Diaghilev, the ballet tells the story, a pastoral on the two lovers Daphnis and Chloé, by the second-century CE Greek poet, Longus. Ravel’s task not only translated the work from its pagan, sensual roots to the more staid sensibilities of belle époque Paris, but also invented a musical form that created (in his own words) a “symphonie choréographique [written] symphonically according to a strict tonal plan with a few motifs whose development achieves a symphonic homogeneity of style.” The result is a gargantuan work, scored for full orchestra, wordless chorus and (perhaps in a moment of whimsy) wind machine. Its premiere, somewhat shadowed by Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune, garnered mixed reviews.

But the work has grown to be not only a favorite of Ravel’s oeuvre but also a necessary standard of the early 20th-century French repertoire. One got the sense of this gravity in Saturday evening’s well-conceived performance. It was difficult to believe that Mercury Orchestra is composed of amateur musicians. Conductor Channing Yu presented a colorful drama that explored the dynamic extremes of Ravel’s score and story. Minor issues plagued more exposed sections of the performance, most notably in the horns that frequently appeared to have issues with intonation. Exposed a capella choral portions of Part II betrayed some issues with pitch and blend in the ensemble. Yet these were far overshadowed by the complete commitment of the ensemble to the minutiae of the score, expertly delineating intimate, exposed small-ensemble portions from the grandly arrayed full orchestra that, although gratifying, can also be overwhelming. Ultimately, the collaboration between chorus, orchestra, and wind machine proved successful, garnering a standing ovation from the clearly enthused audience.

Yet how odd it was to pair this work with Le Tombeau de Couperin, the work that opened Saturday’s concert. The two works sample two different modes of thinking for Ravel: the pre-war (1912) pastoral Daphnis et Chloé stands starkly juxtaposed with the post-war 1919 orchestral setting of four pieces from Le Tombeau de Couperin, originally scored for piano. (It should be noted that Ravel completed the piano work in 1917 while he was in military service.) In Le Tombeau, one hears a France that is characteristic of many of Ravel’s contemporaries and would play an integral role in the generation to follow. Le Tombeau betrays a darkness its glib exterior tries very hard to disguise: each piece of which is written in memory of one of Ravel’s fallen friends. In its very conception, Le Tombeau de Couperin bears a greater gravity and tone at strict odds with the ballet music of Daphnis et Chloé.

Certainly Ravel is known for his exacting standards in performances, a characteristic that famously led Stravinsky to call the composer the “most perfect of Swiss watchmakers.” And although Mercury Orchestra paid strict attention to the metronome, it’s hard not to imagine how the performance would have been shaped were it informed more by the narratives of the works. There is something irrevocably sad (perhaps wry is a better word?) in Ravel’s playful, pastoral, deeply innocent pieces that ultimately serve as memorials to his friends; indeed, early critics of the work commented on this apparent irreverence. Yet Saturday’s performance seemed unnecessarily unfeeling, sometimes to the point of simply rushing through many of the works. Whether this resulted from a novel read of the work or simply a lack of attention to preparation remains a question. None of this, of course, is to ignore the significant work of the ensemble that presented a technically pristine work of extremely high caliber. Of particular note, of course, is significant solo oboe work of Stavroula Hatzios at the opening of the third movement, the Menuet.

Saturday’s performance was of a vibrancy and caliber that spoke to the accomplishments of the amateur musical community in Boston and Cambridge, and, perhaps more resoundingly, to the dedication of those individuals to their art.

Sudeep Agarwala performs with various singing groups in Boston and Cambridge.

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