You can’t get a much pithier title of a composition than Maurice Ravel’s La Valse. You also can’t get a much more misleading one, either, even if the composer fully meant the irony of the title.
Oh, La Valse is a waltz, all right. But in the hands of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon, the 1920 composition became what Ravel intended it to be – a bitter commentary on the lost golden age of Europe before World War I.
BSO Music Director Marin Alsop expertly led the orchestra into La Valse’s familiar melody – something straight out of Johann Strauss Jr.’s gallant “Blue Danube” and other tunes – and then into Ravel’s disorienting distortions of the beat and the note patterns. Toward the end of the piece, independently spun waltz figures from various parts of the orchestra started bumping into each other. Then major parts of the orchestra started breaking down into accents on every other beat, as if they couldn’t wait for three full beats to pass without hammering away at their instruments.
The effect was jarring and even, at times, slightly nausea-inducing. Odd fragments out of bassoons and percussion seemed to play against the mock-lush bowings of the strings. Was this by design? You bet.
It’s practically a perfect representation in sound of the worldwide upheaval caused by the cataclysmic conflict – in which Ravel himself served as a truck driver for French forces behind the lines – and the end of such verities as the Hapsburg monarchy, the fragile European “balance of power,” and for many nations the nearly “century without war” since Napoleon.
Total rhythmic control by Maestra Alsop made the whole thing work. I find that there’s a tension in watching a symphony orchestra conductor between how much they’re forcing an orchestra to do something they’re not already prepared to do – like a college basketball coach madly screaming at his players from the sidelines – and how much it’s all been rehearsed and planned out in advance.
Ms. Alsop seems to have achieved a perfect balance of both rehearsal and in-the-moment leadership with her 96-man band. Her conducting is confident and clear and brings immediate, unanimous results from the BSO even in complicated music. Even before La Valse, she also showed this on Sunday in another Ravel composition that opened the concert at The Music Center at Strathmore – his elaborate pre-war Valses nobles et sentimentales.
This eight-part work (whose title means what it sounds like, “Noble and Sentimental Waltzes”) presents a variety of lush, jaunty and impressionistic themes and has special appeal somewhere for every section of the orchestra. Earlier this season, pianist Einav Yarden presented the original, solo-piano version of Valses nobles et sentimentales in concert at the Phillips Collection. In that recital, Ms. Yarden skillfully employed skitterings across the piano and judicious use of the sustaining pedal to create a sound world that made you feel like you were inside Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painters.
In its full symphonic version – orchestrated by Ravel himself a few years after he wrote the solo-piano version – the “impressionism” is transferred to an extraordinary blend of strings and woodwind instruments whose individual colors magically coalesce into brand new sounds. But it takes an effective first of eight “valses” – a fast, rhythmically charged opening with intensely complex but still fully tonal orchestral chords – to set the table. Unfussy downbeats here by Ms. Alsop let you know that the piece had been perfectly prepared, and from there six additional waltzes in various jaunty and sultry moods, and a final ethereal “epilogue” type of waltz wispily recalling themes of the previous seven, flowed like the most natural thing in the world.
With this, the BSO earned its stripes as a top presenter of Ravel’s distinctive sound-world.
For this program styled as “Haydn and Ravel,” the BSO also presented cellist Sol Gabetta as soloist in Franz Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Ms. Gabetta – her first name is not “Sol” as in Solomon but “Sol” (pronounced “sole” or “soul”) as in the Spanish word for the sun – is an exceptionally winning personality on stage. And much of the Haydn concerto, a very sprightly composition, involves the cello holding onto a sustained note while the orchestra asserts a theme, and then the cellist using that note as a launching pad for answering counter-themes, all calculated to put a smile on your face.
Ms. Gabetta does have a tic in her playing relating to the difference between rendering high notes on the cello vs. the violin. Violinists get to anchor their left thumb to their fingerboards as they reach up to the highest notes on their strings. With their larger instruments, cellists don’t have that luxury – they can anchor their thumb for some of the high notes but at still higher reaches they have to lift their thumb and place the side of it right on the strings to let the rest of the fingers find the very top notes.
Whenever Ms. Gabetta did this switch of the thumb, it seemed as if her dynamics would momentarily take a dip. Yet once established in this position, a few notes later the dynamics would return, and in fact in the highest reaches her tone is so good it sounds virtually like a violin. Still in her early 30s, it will be interesting to follow Ms. Gabetta’s path forward to see if this slight flaw resolves itself over time, because otherwise her playing and personality are on track for a major international career.
Rounding out the concert, Ms. Alsop and the BSO broke the “Haydn and Ravel” mold and finished up with the orchestral suite from the opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. This Strauss – unrelated to the “Waltz King” Strauss on whose thematic ideas Ravel sardonically based La Valse – represented the epitome of post-Romanticism in the 20th century. (He’s best known for his symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra, universally known in our culture for its appropriation as the opening theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The Rosenkavalier suite is an expansive piece of bombast, openly mocked by the more dour type of music critic but a fine selection to close out a Strathmore program on an incipient spring Sunday after another rough Washington winter.
Ms. Alsop laid aside the subtlety and presented the Rosenkavalier suite in all of its somewhat lowbrow glory after the sophisticated intensity of the Ravel-focused concert. I can report that meant one happy audience heading back to the Strathmore parking garage after a very satisfying afternoon of symphonic music.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Haydn and Ravel by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was performed on Sunday, March 22, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For the BSO’s complete upcoming concert schedule, see their ticket calendar. For all upcoming events at Strathmore, see their events calendar.
La Valse by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Orchestre National de France: