Playing in a foreign language

We did a program of mostly French music last week. We even had a French
conductor (Ludovic Morlot, who’s been on the guest conductor circuit
this year and who did a very nice job). It was just like Bastille Day as celebrated at the French
research station at the South Pole. Fortunately such weather does not
deter us Milwaukeeans, and the concerts were surprisingly
well-attended. (Unfortunately such weather doesn’t deter the New York
Giants either, but that’s another story.)

We started with Le Corsaire of Berlioz. I like playing unfamiliar Berlioz; it reminds me of just how weird and original his musical language was. Symphonie fantastique is a great piece, but it’s so familiar to orchestra musicians that the startle reflex is completely suppressed. I don’t have a hint of the composing gene, so the process has always been mysterious to me. But most mysterious is how composers develop a “sound,” and no one had a more distinctive and original sound than did Berlioz.

We ended with the complete Daphnis et Chlöe of Ravel. Playing Ravel and Debussy always feels like a mass exercise in simultaneous translation. First is the use of French for all the tempo indications and such, of course. I wish composers would stick to plain English; what’s wrong with “Allegro” and “con sordino”? Perhaps it’s a national greatness thing; I don’t recall seeing any Czech tempo markings in Dvorak or Polish mute indications (cxzp mvtli?) in Lutoslawski. No doubt they wanted to get their music performed more than once or twice.

Then there are the wild vacillations of key signature, made worse by the publishers’ feeling obliged to wipe out the previous six sharps with six naturals before adding the new seven flats. Having to count 13 accidental signs before figuring out if the C is always flatted is a royal pain in the ass.

Ravel and Debussy often regard the string section as consisting of ten sections or so. There wasn’t a single page of Daphnis where the viola part wasn’t in two staves, which means (among other things) that there’s about 45 seconds between page turns in the fast bits. And what’s on the next page always seems to be a surprise.

Then there are all the awkward pizzicato chords, and funny 2 against 3 notations, and weird accidental sequences (E#s and G naturals should not be right next to each other; it’s just… unnatural), and all those impossible glissandi.

Dahnis is a great piece, and it has some wonderful moments to play. But every time we got to the end I felt shell-shocked.


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