Saturday, May 7, 2011

Another Taste of France

The afternoon of May 1 the Toronto Symphony dove into another program featuring the music of French composers titled French Romance.  Guest conductor for the concert was a first timer with the TSO, Guillermo Figueroa, and returning after her debut in 2009 was guest violinist Caroline Goulding.  I would welcome the opportunity to see them both again.

Maestro Figueroa gave background to each of the pieces and composers, and conducted the entire concert without a score!  Some of the background tidbits included:
- The best Spanish music was written by the French until the Spanish composers caught up
- France didn't have the history of famous composers that the Germans or Austrians did with Berlioz being the first famous French composer.
- Debussy was the first impressionist and wrote music that was light and airy.  He didn't particularly like Wagner's style whereas Chausson did like him and merged some of the Wagner chromaticism with the French style.
- The chromatics at the start of "Poeme" are reminisent of Tristan and Isolde. I haven't heard it, so I'll take his word on that.
- Alas Chausson liked to ride his bicycle and took a tumble one day, hitting his head and proceeded to die at 44 years of age.

The concert opened with "Le crosaire Overture" by Hector Berlioz, followed by "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" by Claude Debussy.  This definitely had a light airy feel to it with lovely solos by the principal flute, and lots of harp as well.

TSO website
Ernest Chausson's "Poeme for Violin and Orchestra" featured Caroline Goulding playing a 1720 Stradivarius in her first of 2 pieces.  Apparently this is an important piece in the violinist repertoire.  The chromatic sounds were soothing, and having just had the lightness of Prelude, I was getting drowsy.  Closing my eyes and just letting the music wash over, I could have drifted off to sleep.  To borrow a line from Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, at times the violin seemed to be crying.  Caroline looks younger than her program picture, and is apparently still a teenager attending Curtis, but what a skilled violinist.  She sparkled both in her flowing red dress, and in her playing.

The conclusion of the first half woke me up again with Berlioz's "Rakoczy March" from The Damnation of Faust.  It's a recycling of a Hungarian Dance Berlioz had previously written, and hence was loved for in Hungary.  In the opera he had Faust end up in Hungary just so he could include the march.

Bizet's Carmen is always a crowd pleaser and it was again as the orchestra opened the second half with "Suite No. 1 from Carmen".  Love those castanets!  There were no piano parts in the concert, but principal keyboardist was making the triangle sing from the percussion side of the stage.  It was fun to watch the bassoons in part IV: Les dragons d'Alcala.  They have the best facial expressions when making leaps or short articulations.  There were nice oboe, flute, and clarinet solos throughout.  I hadn't seen the young lady clarinetist before but I wish I had her tone quality!  The conductor acknowledged the oboe and flute players at the end, but alas, not the clarinet.

Caroline returned for "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" (linked performance by legendary Itzhak Perlman) by Camille Saint-Saens and blew me away.  I'd say others in the audience were as well, as she received a standing ovation when she finished.  The concertmaster seemed to be right with her at times when he wasn't playing.  He's probably been in her position and looked like he was silently supporting her.  I was surprised to actually recognize parts of the piece, but it's awesome.  Lively, sharp and in complete contrast to the flowing Chausson.
The rousing finish to the afternoon came with another Saint-Saens piece, "Bacchanale" from Samson and Delilah.    The timpanist got a work out with the big wacks at the end.  As the story in the opera goes this portion takes place in the temple of Dagon and his followers perform this exotic and frantic dance.  I think Maestro Figueros was referring to this piece, although I expect it applies equally to Carmen, when he said that you had to have a ballet in the opera, especially in Paris.  The male patrons who gave alot of money, showed up just for the third act so they could watch the ballerinas.  No ballet, no patrons, no money.

A different twist on France than the TSO's previous version, with some awe inspiring talent.  Great job!

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