DEBUSSY Prelude to “Afternoon of a Fawn”
GERSHWIN An American in Paris
STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring
By Ann Haley
Igor Stravinsky’s landmark ballet opened with a bassoon solo, plaintively awakening spring. This solo was repeated, but intermittently accompanied atonally by a base bassoon. Other instruments joined in. The bassoon solo repeated; percussion and strings prevailed with a varied accented ostinato that lasted for several measures. Flutes provided a treble distraction, until other sections of the orchestra entered in.
Perhaps it would be better to give an introduction to this work, which, at its Paris premier, nearly brought the house down. Loud demonstrations from the audience seemed to endanger the lives of the composer and the musicians. Perhaps Les Six were responsible for instigating the uproar, because it was their intention all along to incite audiences, who, having listened politely for too long, were considered by modern composers to be rather dead. As Darius Milhaud said, at least the music he and Les Six were writing was alive, provable by its rowdy reception—the messier the merrier, it seemed. The six composers who made up Les Six were fluid, in that their membership waxed and waned: Germaine Tailleferre, Igor Stravinsky, Georges Satie (often in) Darius Milhaud (the most successful composer of Les Six and always in), Poulenc, Claude Debussy (until the rest decided his music was dead and he was out ), Arnold Schoenberg, and Dimitri Shostakovich, when he was available. All of Les Six embraced Le Sacre du Printemps fully and participated in its design, music and execution. What made the piece so outrageous? Well, the choreography, for one. (YouTube has the Nijinsky version. Nijinsky had choreographed both ballets heard at this concert: the Rites and the Prelude. The latter was far more graceful and aesthetic.) The atonality and unexpected structure of the work, another reason for the uproar. Our production of this great work (without the ballet dancers) used over one hundred instruments, including different types of the following: saxophones, bassoons, flutes, and clarinets that were tuned differently from others in their class. Two harps were used and much percussion. It was a very complicated work for the players, and possibly for Daniel Stewart, who conducted the entire program without a score—normal for him.
Each work performed in this program was introduced by a solo instrument played beautifully and expressively.
The program began with Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” in C Sharp Minor, very beautifully introduced by a solo flutist. This theme recurred throughout the piece in various playful forms. Debussy had been thoroughly trained in music theory in the western classical tradition, and he knew how to use it to achieve his signature sensuous, silky, musical style. The Prelude used beautiful voice sharing among treble winds and violas and two harps, until the end of the warm afternoon of the faun, when bells tolled, represented by a triangle striking softly three times. The audience reverently stood, clapping as Danny Stewart recognized each of the many fine musicians in turn.
The second work played before Intermission was George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” a story about an American homesick in Paris. How could anyone ever be homesick in that wonderful city? you ask. The music is beautifully moody and happy by turns, opening very noisily with two levels of car horns, borrowing ragtime tunes from other familiar melodies of the time. Lots of percussion: a marimba, drums, cymbals, all perfectly timed in rapid-fire rhythm. A trumpet solo and different types of saxophones expressed the moodier moments of the American in Paris. The concert master played a beautiful violin solo, followed by the full orchestra alternating with dreamy strings playing all of the themes in medley form, until the auto horns returned to bring everything to a climactic crash. The audience jumped to a standing ovation as Danny graciously thanked each of the musicians.
Following Intermission, the work everyone was awaiting, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, required setting up the stage with just the right instruments: no harp this time, but huge basses, two tubas, and several bassoons. The piece opened with a beautiful bassoon solo playing in a very pretty minor key against a dissonant pedal tone. Gradually a crescendo of wind instruments helped create the overall effect of the periodic rhythmic sounds found in nature. A lively cacophony was followed by a quiet repetition of the opening theme. The violins continued playing an ostinato that was picked up by the rest of the strings. Horns gave this ostinato some emphasis, as a crescendo of brass winds led to the orchestra becoming agitated, as the moment of sacrifice approached. However, the actual moment of sacrifice was ushered in by highly martial music The whole work surprisingly ended with a cute fillip at the end. Following this the superb bassoon soloist took a special bow, which Danny cued, after having conducted this very atonal, complex work without a score. The audience gave this performance a long enthusiastic ovation of appreciation.
We must commend Daniel Stewart for his many accomplishments: he has built up a magnificent orchestra, filling out every section with expert talent. His programs never include any overbeaten warhorses. He has shown inspiration, innovation in every program selection, introducing his audiences to new, living, accomplished composers, and he has included some of his own compositions. He has broadened our knowledge of music as well as our taste in music. We happily have several more Santa Cruz Symphony concerts to look forward to in 2019, beginning in February.
A recommended primary source: “Notes Without Music” by Darius Milhaud, 1957. His best-known musical work is “Le Boeuf sur le Toit,” which uses Brazilian rhythms and ragtime. Dr. Jay Arms of the UCSC Music Department and pre-concert lecturer at the Mello performance, uses this book as a primary source to modern music. I suggest checking out a library copy as the price today is prohibitive. Excerpts from it are available online through Wikipedia and other sites, including John Calder, an expert in the music field.