The premiere of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is considered the birth of musical impressionism. The basis of the approximately ten-minute orchestral work is a poem by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whom Debussy admired, published with an illustration by Édouard Manet in 1876. The dancer Vaclav Nijinsky used the composition in 1912 as the basis of one of his choreographies for the epoch-making Ballets russes, often fraught with scandal.
Music by César Franck caused a scandal of quite a different kind in 1889: “How can you describe a symphony as in the key of D minor when the principal theme at the ninth bar goes into D flat, at the tenth C flat, at the twenty-first F sharp minor, at the twenty-fifth C, at the thirty-ninth E flat major, at the forty-ninth F minor?” Ambroise Thomas asked in sheer outrage, after attending the premiere of the sole symphony composed by his composer colleague, who was from Belgium. Three years before that, Franck composed the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. When you hear this work today, you delight in both its harmonic richness and its imaginative form.
Half a century after Franck conquered Paris to gain recognition as a composer, Edgard Varèse, who was born in the city on the Seine, moved to New York. With his orchestra composition Amériques he created a musical monument to his adopted home, without denying his European roots in the process. In addition, other discoveries on this concert are Betsy Jolas, a composer also equally at home in France and the US, from whom Sir Simon and the Berliner Philharmoniker have commissioned a short new orchestra piece, as well as the Australian Percy Grainger. A special trick of this clever programme: a juxtaposition of Maurice Ravel’s piano composition La Vallée des cloches with Grainger’s orchestration of the same piece. When Sir Simon and Emanuel Ax appear together in a concert, surprises are always in store.