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Revisiting Paris’s Années folles in Symphony Hall


Violinist James Ehnes with Stéphane Denève (Hilary Scott photo)
Violinist James Ehnes with Stéphane Denève (Hilary Scott photo)

Guest conductor Stéphane Denève leads the BSO this weekend in a concert of music linked to 1920’s Paris as a fitting conclusion to its month-long celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In adition to sets of ballet music by Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Poulenc, we heard James Ehnes in Prokofiev’s first violin concerto. Toe-tapping good fun enlightened a dark winter’s day.

Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella (1922; revised 1947) resulted from Diaghilev’s proposition to Stravinsky that he arrange music by Pergolesi. We now know that little of this music is truly by Pergolesi, and what is tends to be in the songs which were not included in the orchestral suite. Hence we hear Stravinsky in a neoclassical vein. Darius Milhaud’s ballet score La Création du monde, op. 81 (1923), a jazz-inflected work for small ensemble (it uses the same instrumentation as Maceo Pinkard’s show, Liza, and it is also often performed in versions for two pianos and two pianos plus string quartet), is inspired by African folklore. Francis Poulenc’s Suite from the ballet Les Biches (also 1923; re-orchestrated concert suite dates to 1939) is an amalgam of musical styles from classicism through to ragtime and jazz— here in its BSO premiere. The ballet featured a tableau vivant of doe-eyed women (the deer of the title, unfortunately translated in the program book by Hugh MacDonald as “The Lovies”) being courted on stage. With just the music from the three scores on stage, though, I discerned lots of interesting parallels—not so much borrowings and citations as the shared idiom that comes from composers who are friends and proximate. While we might fixate more on Paris in the teens that welcomed Le sacre du Printemps with a riot, this concert evoked a 1920s Paris as a fascinating place of serious fun. 

Presented at one of Serge Koussevitzky’s Paris concerts, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19 (1923) serves to ground us in 1923 Paris, while also showcasing a Boston (Koussevitzky) connection. Jerome Robbins was the first to choreograph it (in 1979 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride). While Milhaud and Poulenc convey the imaginative capacity of jazz being combined with classical music, Prokofiev (like Stravinsky) looks eastward, incorporating Russian musical elements, as well as an opening theme that takes inspiration from Jewish music. Meeting with initial resistance, and criticized as too romantic (as Mandel notes in the program) this technically challenging concerto quickly became canonical thanks to the efforts of Joseph Szigeti. In the right hands (as here), it is sublime.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite in six movements calls for a small orchestra. It opens neo-classically and is tuneful, gentle, pleasant, proceeding with touches of Stravinsky’s color in the orchestration. In the third movement, Tarantella, Modernity bursts forth; here the music is indubitably Stravinsky, though I heard intimations of Rimsky-Korsakov. The fifth movement, Vivo, brings us even more emphatically to Modernism. This suite is a musical pastiche and I kept imagining the choreography to be something like Twyla Tharp, where classical ballet gets turned on its head. This performance lacked something, but that might be the shortcomings in the music showing forth.

James Ehnes took the stage for Prokofiev’s concerto. Denève and the BSO played beautifully but the attraction here is the soloist. I have long admired Ehnes’ playing from his recordings so jumped at the opportunity to hear him live. He did not disappoint. It was as elegant as ever. Ehnes was sheer perfection. Recalled to the stage he gave us as encore J. S. Bach’s Allegro assai from the Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005.

Following intermission, a small ensemble took the stage for Milhaud’s La Création du monde. In an overture and six movements, the music opens subdued, restrained. Over the course of this musical cosmogony, a fugue starts in the double bass, the clarinet plays a jazzy riff, the oboe enjoys a lyrical theme that seems to nod to Grieg. This is protean music and there were some outstanding performances here. I was especially impressed with the (unnamed) performer [Adam Pelandini] on alto saxophone. There were unfortunately some balance issues throughout; notably I found it difficult to hear cellist Jules Eskin over the ensemble.

The concert concluded with the full orchestra in Poulenc, Les biches Suite. The five episodic movements not only capture sensual pleasure as of dancers upon the stage, but also the sensual pleasures of pure sound. The music is happy and rich, graceful even in tempo modulations, and brightly positive throughout. Denève deftly captured the fun in this music. I look forward to spending more time with this beautifully elaborated score in future hearings.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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  1. Was at the Saturday night performance. Nice to be transported away – for a while – from cold, snow and ice damns.
    Ehnes was incredible. Wow. We also have really come to appreciate Deneve. I think this is the 4th time we’ve seen him as guest conductor over the last several years; and every time he has delivered a fantastic program and performance. Hope we continue to see more of him.

    Comment by STW — February 22, 2015 at 11:10 am

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