Mikko Franck conducts Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les sortilèges”
21 Jan 2018
Noah Bendix-Balgley, Emily Fons
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (34 min.)
Noah Bendix-Balgley violin and direction
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra in A minor, op. 28 (12 min.)
Noah Bendix-Balgley violin and direction
Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata No. 3 in C major for Violin solo, BWV 1005: Largo (5 min.)
Noah Bendix-Balgley violin
L’Enfant et les sortilèges, opera in one act (50 min.)
Emily Fons mezzo-soprano, Sir Paul Gay bass baritone, Kiera Duffy soprano, Marie Lenormand mezzo-soprano, Elodie Méchain contralto, Mathias Vidal tenor, Elliot Madore baritone, Kanae Fujitani soprano, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master, Children’s Choir of the Komische Oper Berlin, Dagmar Fiebach chorus master
Noah Bendix-Balgley on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Introduction et Rondo capriccioso” (2 min.)
Mikko Franck in conversation with Stephan Koncz (18 min.)
The programme features a work of imagination, charm and humour: the opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges written by Maurice Ravel to a libretto by Colette. In fantastic, magical images, the plot traces the development of a child, from his angry tantrums which damage his surroundings and consequently also himself, to a boy who is compassionate and self-aware. The composer set this story to music in the manner of an “American operetta” (Ravel). Like in a revue, he employs a wide range of musical styles one after another, from the neo-Baroque bicinium and bel canto arias to ragtime and music hall. Moreover, there is Ravel’s subtle, multifaceted orchestration which makes L'Enfant et les sortilèges one of his most impressive and most personal works. The conductor is Mikko Franck, who steps in for Seiji Ozawa.
In the first part of the concert Noah Bendix-Balgley is the focus of the musical action. Born in North Carolina, the musician has been concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2014. He opens the concert – without the participation of Mikko Franck– as the soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto. The work is the last of the five violin concertos Mozart wrote between 1773 and 1775. It is characterised by the brilliance of the solo violin part, its original – often surprising – harmonies, and its folk music-based final theme. The cadenzas in this performance were written by Noah Bendix-Balgley himself. Then follows Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, an equally atmospheric and highly virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra which the composer wrote for the famous violinist Pablo Sarasate.
Rules of the Game for Sorcerers
Works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel
With “Turcheria”: Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major
A minor, of course. When Mozart wanted to salute the current fashion of music in “Turkish” mode, it was the appropriate key: in the Allegretto “alla turca” of the A major Piano Sonata K. 331 and the Presto overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail K. 384, as well as in the Allegro in 2/4 time that suddenly bursts into a galant Tempo di Menuetto in the Rondeau finale of the Violin Concerto K. 219. With its forte-piano accents, simple harmony with chromatic darkenings and use of coll’arco al rovescio (also called col legno: bowing with the wood rather than the hair) in the cellos and double basses, it has surely been these roughly 130 bars to which the concerto has owed its undying popularity.
This is the last of Mozart’s five authentic violin concertos, of which numbers 2 to 5 were all composed within a short span of time – between June and December 1775 – in Salzburg, and probably not for himself but for Antonio Brunetti, who became Konzertmeister of the Salzburg court orchestra the following year. Later he composed individual movements, also for Brunetti – an Adagio (K. 261) and two rondos (K. 269 and 373) – as well as a lost Andante in A major (K. 470). Mozart was also perfectly capable of performing the concertos himself. He received his first violin lessons, of course, from his father Leopold, and he must have been a reasonably good player until he turned his attention increasingly to the piano. Already on their first Italian journey, Leopold reports: “Wolfgang plays the violin, but not in public”.
He deeply regretted that Wolfgang did not more often pick up “his” (Leopold’s) instrument and never ceased to admonish his son, for example in October 1777: “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin, if you will only do yourself credit and play with energy, with your whole heart and mind, yes, just as if you were the first violinist in Europe... Oh, how often you will hear a violinist play, who has a great reputation, and feel very sorry for him!”
“Trop célèbre”: Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo capriccioso
Although Camille Saint-Saëns’s concert piece Introduction et Rondo capriccioso op. 28 is also in A minor, its character is not “alla turca” but rather “plus espagnol que jamais” – “more Spanish than ever” – as the composer wrote on 30 December 1884 to the conductor Joseph Dupont. In a review of the work in performance, it was described as a “kind of Fantaisie-Valse à l’espagnole”, and indeed the syncopated 6/8 rhythm of the rondo has an unmistakable Spanish colouring – vaguely alluding to the asymmetry of a seguiriya (gypsy seguidilla), undoubtedly in tribute to the dedicatee, Pablo de Sarasate. The French composer and the Spanish violinist first met in 1859, aged 24 and 15, respectively. That proved the beginning of a cordial and intensive artistic friendship which lasted until Sarasate’s death on 20 September 1908 and yielded, in addition to Saint-Saëns’s violin concertos No. 1 in A major, op. 20 (1859) and No. 3 in B minor, op. 61 (1880), the concert piece being played today, a staple in the repertoire of every great violinist. Originally, the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso was probably intended as the finale of the A major Concerto – which remained in a single movement – and both works had their premieres at the same concert, on 4 April 1867. With Sarasate as soloist and Saint-Saëns conducting, they were performed on that occasion one directly after the other. The Introduction et Rondo capriccioso quickly acquired such popularity on its own that the composer himself later apostrophized it as “trop célèbre” – “excessively famous”.
A kaleidoscope of dream images: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges
In May 1921, Maurice Ravel moved into the villa Le Bevédère in Montfort-l’Amaury, a village west of Paris. The house’s fantastic interior featured wallpaper designed by the composer himself along with the ornaments on the marble of the fireplace, delicate furniture in the decorative-arts style of the fin de siècle,and a constantly growing “collection of fakes”, as the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange called it, distributed through all the rooms: Gothic ashtrays, figurines and imitations of Chinese porcelain, on the piano – bathed in diffused light from two weighty metal lamps with globes of etched milk glass – a glass dome beneath which ships appear to sway on a sea of shells, flowers and starfish. Similarly, the garden of this huge toy-chest was an artfully arranged microcosm of bonsais and similar dwarf plants, in which the 1.58 m (5’ 2”) composer must have seemed like a latter-day Gulliver. In this magical world at Le Belvédère, Ravel created a mystical realm – an “artificial paradise”. In its shelter, he immersed himself in the dreams of a child from which he produced his music, notably L’Enfant et les Sortilèges – Ravel and his fairytale world: a wondrous amalgamation of its creator with the work his German biographer H. H. Stuckenschmidt described as his “summum opus”.
In 1916, to a commission by Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opéra, the French writer (Sidonie-Gabrielle) Colette wrote a libretto which, with the working title Ballet pour ma fille, was offered to Ravel for composition. “He accepted,” recalled Colette later. “He took away my libretto and we had no more news of Ravel or of L’Enfant.” Eventually, she asked him cautiously but insistently how the score was coming on. Ravel explained on 27 February 1919: “I was actually wondering whether you still wanted such an inefficient collaborator. In truth, I am already working on our opera: I’m taking notes – without writing any.”
“Then the war came and total silence descended,” continued Colette in her memoirs. “I stopped thinking about L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”, as the work was later entitled. “Five years went by.” It was to the persistent cajoling of Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Opéra de Monte Carlo, that Ravel finally yielded, contractually agreeing to deliver the score by the end of the year. And so, to Colette’s and Gunsbourg’s great delight, rehearsals could actually begin in January 1925, and on 21 March the triumphant premiere of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges finally took place.
The libretto kaleidoscopically strings together dream images of such diversity that the stylistic melange of the music was virtually obligatory. Some portions of the text – the fox-trot of the Wedgwood teapot and china teacup, for example, and the Cats’ Duet – were written in accordance with Ravel’s strict instructions. In his orchestration, he unleashes a veritable firework display of colours and rhythms, ranging from medieval organum (the oboes’ parallel 4ths and 5ths in the introduction) and Baroque dance forms to jazz.
It cannot have been a coincidence that Ravel scored the opera at Le Belvédère; every page of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges exudes the “atmosphere of tenderness and subtle pantheism” (critic Émile Vuillermoz writing in the journal Excelsior) that surrounded the composer in Montfort-l’Amaury. Colette’s text could have been describing Ravel’s garden when, to begin the second scene, the Child is transported outdoors with the two Cats: “Trees, flowers, a little green pool, a fat tree-trunk covered in ivy” glimmer in the moonlight; one hears “the music of insects, frogs and toads, the laughter of screech owls, the murmur of the breeze and nightingales.” L’Enfant et les Sortilèges has immortalized the enchantment of this fairy-tale realm.
The Finnish conductor Mikko Franck was born in Helsinki in 1979 and started playing the violin at the age of five. He studied violin at the Sibelius Academy from 1992, and from 1995, he received conducting lessons from Jorma Panula; further studies took him to New York, Israel and Sweden. Since then he has performed with many renowned orchestras – including the Munich Philharmonic and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin – and at leading opera houses. From 2001 to 2007, he was chief conductor of the Orchestre National de Belgique, and from 2006 to 2013, general music director and (since 2007) artistic director of Finnish National Opera. In addition to his activities there, Franck also conducted performances at Zurich Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He has been a guest on several occasions at the Wiener Staatsoper where the operas he conducted included La Bohème, Salome, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Elektra, Tosca and Die tote Stadt. In September 2015, Mikko Franck took over the musical direction of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with whom he also toured Europe and Asia last season. Since the beginning of this season, he has also been principal guest conductor of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Mikko Franck conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2003 with a programme of works by Ravel and Shostakovich.
Noah Bendix-Balgley comes from Asheville, North Carolina and received his first violin lessons at the age of four. As a nine-year-old, he performed before Yehudi Menuhin, and later studied at Indiana University and at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich under Mauricio Fuks, Christoph Poppen and Ana Chumachenco. He has won numerous competitions, including the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels. After being concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 2011 to 2014, Noah Bendix-Balgley joined the Berliner Philharmoniker as first concertmaster in September 2014. As a soloist, he has performed together with renowned orchestras, including the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Orchestre National de Belgique. A keen chamber musician, he also appears at festivals in Europe and North America with partners such as Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, Emanuel Ax, Lars Vogt and percussionist Colin Currie. In June 2016, he premiered his own klezmer concerto Fidl-Fantazye with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Manfred Honeck.
The American mezzo-soprano Emily Fons comes from Wisconsin. She studied in Illinois and subsequently attended the Lyric Opera in Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center. She has appeared in the past few years at a number of opera houses in the USA including Santa Fe Opera and Boston Lyric Opera, predominantly in Baroque and Mozart roles (such as Cherubino, Dorabella, Zerlina, Rosina). In the 2013/2014 season, she made her role debut as Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus) at Lyric Opera Chicago. In 2015, Emily Fons sang the role of the child in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges at Seiji Ozawa’s Music Academy in Japan. Last season, she appeared in Europe in the title role of La Cenerentola at the Opéra de Lille. On the concert stage, she has been a guest artist with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, and with the Alabama Symphony and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Emily Fons now makes her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.