Ludovic Morlot and Joyce DiDonato
17 Jun 2017
Ma Mère l’Oye, Suite for orchestra (19 min.)
La Mort de Cléopâtre, Lyrical Scene for soprano and orchestra (25 min.)
Joyce DiDonato Mezzo-Soprano
L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), ballet (51 min.)
Joyce DiDonato in conversation with Noah Bendix-Balgley (18 min.)
“Monsieur, I would never have thought that a composer would have to avoid new means of expression if he has the good fortune that they occur to him, and when they fit in the context,” Hector Berlioz protested in a discussion with François-Adrien Boieldieu, member of the jury at the Conservatoire de Paris. Once again he had not been awarded the Prix de Rome, the sought-after scholarship for budding composers. The cantata he had submitted, La Mort de Cléopâtre, which traces the desperate moments before the Egyptian queen’s suicide and musically accompanies each and every stirring in the soul with expressive harmonies and unusual rhythms, outraged the conservative teachers in its progressivity. In this programme, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato lends Cleopatra her voice. The American already proved that she is an ideal Berlioz interpreter as Marguerite at the performance of the dramatic legend La Damnation de Faust that Sir Simon Rattle conducted in 2015. Her “radiant swells” and “silver-saturated highs” enchanted the audience and the press.
While Berlioz had to struggle for his works to be recognised even in later years, another composer took Paris by storm: Igor Stravinsky, whom Sergei Diaghilev, the enterprising and savvy impresario of the Ballets russes, commissioned in 1910 to compose a ballet based on the old Russian folk tale The Firebird. In fact, it was intended that Anatoly Lyadov wrote the music to it, but he didn’t deliver, and thus in direst need Diaghilev approached Stravinsky, who was 27 at the time and still completely unknown. A stroke of good fortune in music history, because Stravinsky created a composition full of rhythmic power, shimmering timbres and surprising orchestral effects which inspired the Paris audience to thunderous applause and made the young Russian the leading ballet composer of his time virtually overnight.
Only a few weeks earlier, Maurice Ravel achieved such a success with his piano suite Ma Mère l’Oye, inspired by several stories from Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale collection, that he decided to orchestrate the work and expand it to an orchestral suite and a ballet version. In this work, Ravel makes use of a completely different musical language than the “wild” Russian: dreamy, archaic, tender. The conductor of this programme is Ludovic Morlot, who stands in for an indisposed Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Born in France, Morlot has been music director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011 and makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in this concert.
Tomb and Enchanted Garden
Music for Fairy Tales and Legends by Ravel, Berlioz and Stravinsky
“Paris, the capital of the 19th century”: Walter Benjamin’s succinct phrase can be illustrated by a wealth of examples. The chronological coincidence with which major cultural events converged on the Seine between the French Revolution and the First World War is impressive in itself. For example, Hector Berlioz’s lyric scene Cléopâtre was heard for the first time there in summer 1829 – only a few days before Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, one of the most important operas of the 19th century, had its premiere. Both works are milestones of Romantic music and characteristic of an era in which tensions would erupt during the July Revolution the following summer. The situation is similar with the two outer works on today’s programme. Only two months separate the first performance of the piano version of Ma Mère l’Oye, Maurice Ravel’s pieces for children, in Paris in 1910 and the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet L’Oiseau de feu – fairy-tale music that made enchanted gardens resound with unprecedented splendour on the eve of the First World War.
On Mother Goose’s Lap: Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye
When the Société Musicale Indépendante celebrated its founding with a concert at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, Ravel played the premiere of Claude Debussy’s piano piece D’un cahier d’esquisses From a Sketchbook but left the performance of a new work of his own up to other interpreters: two girls, ten and eleven years old, presented Ma Mère l’Oye (My Mother Goose), five pieces for piano duet inspired by fairy tales by Charles Perrault and other fairy-tale collectors of the Baroque period. The positive reception of the work prompted Ravel to arrange it as an orchestral suite in 1911 and to expand this version as music for a ballet. The suite for medium-sized orchestra displays Ravel’s orchestrational skills from their most fascinating side:
– Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty): Flutes and other woodwinds above striding pizzicatos and harmonics in the harp; the quintessence of French music in twenty bars.
– Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb): He loses his way in the forest with uncertain whole-tone steps; the oboe and English horn lament while other instruments twitter.
– Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas; freely translated from the literary source as “The ugly duckling, ruler of the porcelain figurines”): Composed for the black keys in F sharp major, expanded with polytonality; glittering, gorgeous colours modelled on Javanese gamelan music recalled by Ravel.
– Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast): The clarinet first turns down the contrabassoon’s proposal of marriage in this slow waltz but then the spell is broken.
– Le Jardin féerique (The Enchanted Garden): Composed for the white keys in diatonic C major, far removed from Laideronnette. An almost classically simple hymn with tremendous power.
In the Face of a Poisonous Snake: Hector Berlioz’s Cléopâtre
Even a world capital can be provincial at times. Many musicians in Paris had problems with the Prix de Rome, which was presented every year in various genres of art. Anyone who wanted to receive this prestigious award in the category of music had to compose a work for voice(s) and orchestra on a prescribed text under examination conditions. The jury’s preference for operatic scenes in which legendary figures breathe their last on earth in noble simplicity and serene grandeur was demonstrated with unintentional humour in Berlioz’s four Prix de Rome cantatas. After being eliminated in the preliminary round in 1826, during the following years he first had to make a maiden from Antioch unhappy (Herminie, 1828) and bury Orpheus (La Mort d’Orphée, 1827) and Cleopatra (Cléopâtre, 1829) before the prize was awarded to him with the decadent end of the favourite libertine of French Romanticism (La Mort de Sardanapale, 1830).
Although these compulsory exercises must have been an ordeal for Berlioz, they suited his penchant for imaginary theatre. Cléopâtre, in particular, is musical “head cinema” par excellence. Berlioz summarized the plot thus in his memoirs: “The Queen of Egypt clasps the asp to her bosom and dies in convulsions; but before dying, she invokes the spirits of the Pharaohs and in holy fear demands to know if she, a queen of crimes and dissipations, may hope to enter those mighty vaults erected to the shades of monarchs distinguished for their fame and virtue.” Berlioz demonstrated his solidarity with Cleopatra with almost raging force: the introduction, recitative, two-part aria, meditation and epilogue are aglow with much more drama until Cleopatra’s final collapse than the academic guardians of public morals liked. In his sharp-tongued memoirs Berlioz recounts his apologia to the juror François-Adrien Boïeldieu: “I assure you, sir, I did my best” – and Boïeldieu supposedly answered: “Your best is the enemy of the good ...”
Enchanted by Flapping Wings: Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu
As entertaining as they are, Berlioz’s memoirs are no more reliable than the autobiographical statements of Igor Stravinsky. The later his recollections, the smaller becomes the part that the dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine was allowed to play as a leading collaborator on the ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), since “Fokine was easily the most disagreeable man I have ever worked with. In fact ... he was the most disagreeable man I have ever met.”
Fokine and the director Sergei Grigoriev drew on Alexander Afanasyev’s collection of fairy tales, published between 1855 and 1863, for the Firebird ballet, merging the stories of the immortal villain Kashchei and the firebird and combining them with the human sphere of Ivan Tsarevich, who is searching for love.
The murmuring A flat minor figures in the low strings wind around a tritone during the introduction, suggesting the different worlds of the characters. The ponderous thirds represent Kashchei and the half-tone steps, the brilliant chromaticism of the title character, whose flapping wings are depicted with all the resources of a late Romantic or Impressionist orchestra. Because of its inexhaustible instrumental imagination this work goes far beyond the tone painting that Stravinsky disdained.
The firebird bursts into the oppressive calm of Kashchei’s enchanted garden with trills and glissandos, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich. The captive princesses who appear on the scene later extend the palette with an elfin scherzo and an old Slavic round dance, the khorovod. It is no wonder that Ivan Tsarevich falls in love with one of the princesses, the beautiful Tsarevna, to the sounds of this music. In the meantime, enchanted bells ring in the morning; Ivan is captured and questioned by Kashchei. The firebird rescues him with two brilliant numbers, however: Kashchei’s men are rendered harmless by the Infernal Dance and the E flat minor bassoon solo of the Berceuse Lullaby. The way to the chest containing the secret of Kashchei’s immortality is now clear.
After the death of the ogre, the brief second tableau follows as an epilogue. The enchanted kingdom disappears and the petrified knights come to life again – “general rejoicing” breaks out, beginning with a horn solo that revolves around a folk tune. Variations of the tune build up to exultant chord changes ascending to the B major tonic in the final bars. There is a transition from C major and C sharp major to the distant key of F major and back again – a tonal range in which the tritone from the opening bars reappears – the “diabolus in musica” devil in music. It is the final greeting of the devil to whom Kashchei was sent just before the happy ending.
Joyce DiDonato, who was born in Kansas (USA), studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, after which she continued her training in young singer programmes at the opera houses in San Francisco, Houston and Santa Fe. Since then, her stellar career has taken her to, among others, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Londonʼs Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the State Opera houses in Munich and Vienna, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Liceu in Barcelona, and to renowned festival venues such as Salzburg, Edinburgh and the BBC Proms. Joyce DiDonatoʼs core repertoire includes roles by Handel and Mozart and Rossini bel canto roles. She has also appeared as Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos), in the title role of The Cunning Little Vixen, and in contemporary stage works such as in Mark Adamoʼs Little Women, Tod Machoverʼs Resurrection and Jake Heggieʼs Dead Man Walking. The mezzo-soprano is equally sought after as a concert soloist and has worked with conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Alan Gilbert, James Levine, Sir Roger Norrington, and has appeared with orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Orchestre National de Paris and the Cleveland Orchestra. Joyce DiDonato, who received her second Grammy Award in 2016 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School in 2014, has also given lieder recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London and New Yorkʼs Carnegie Hall. In Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, the artist made her first appearance in April 2015 as Marguerite in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. At the end of May, the singer returned to the Philharmonie with an evening of baroque arias under the banner In War and Peace, together with the ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev.
Ludovic Morlot was born in Lyon and first trained as a violinist. He studied conducting in London at the Royal Academy of Music and then at the Royal College of Music. The French conductor has been Music Director of the Seattle Symphony since 2011. Between 2012 and 2014 he also served as chief conductor of La Monnaie in Brussels. He has regular relationships with the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony and has also conducted the symphony orchestras in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Ludovic Morlot has a particularly strong connection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra having been assistant conductor for the orchestra and their music director James Levine from 2004 to 2007. In Europe he has conducted orchestras including the Royal Concertgebouw, London Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Dresden Staatskapelle and the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Ludovic Morlot is chair of orchestral conducting studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 2014. In these concerts he gives his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.