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Refreshing rarities

Roy Thomson Hall
03/30/2011 -  & March 31, 2011
Paul Dukas: La Péri
Guillaume Connesson: The Shining One
Franz Liszt: Totentanz
Florent Schmitt: La Tragédie de Salomé, opus 47

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Piano)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (Conductor)

J.-Y. Thibaudet (Courtesy of The TSO)

The best one-word description of this concert is “piquant”, not to mention somewhat recondite. Stéphane Denève (currently Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) has established a fine reputation as a conductor of French repertory and this program demonstrated just why this is so.

Paul Dukas La Péri (a “poème dansé”) is a 17-minute ballet score dating from 1912. The ballet’s plot is based on an ancient Persian tale about the encounter between a prince and a fairy who guards the lotus of immortality. Like virtually all such tales it ends sadly, and the score has a wistful quality throughout, even during its opening fanfare. It requires a large orchestra that, in true French style, is mostly used discreetly, resulting in a fine thread of sound that swells and ebbs. It ends quietly – and Maestro Denève managed to maintain a rapt silence in the hall for several seconds afterwards.

For the second work on the program, Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Guillaume Connesson’s The Shining One (Concerto for Piano and Orchestra), a work that Thibaudet (the work’s dedicatee) and Denève premiered with the RSNO in 2009. Connesson was born in 1970 and had an earlier work, Aleph, co-commissioned by the TSO (and the Scottish Orchestra) in 2007. The title of the concerto refers to a character (or creature) in a 1912 fantasy novel, The Moon Pool, by an American author, Abraham Merritt. When the Shining One seizes humans they are plunged into a state of both ecstasy and horror. The work is brief (barely nine minutes) and quite a lot happens in its three linked sections. The second part is somewhat Ravelian, with rippling passages in the higher end of the keyboard. The final part is somewhat Rachmaninoffian; it exploits the woodwinds (notably the clarinet), and builds to a clangorous, almost nightmarish, conclusion.

This work comes across as an exciting little surprise; the audience liked it. (As for “ecstacy and horror" – sure, why not?) Of course it helps that M. Thibaudet is a well-regarded frequent guest here. He turns 50 this year but still retains his youthful verve and aplomb as revealed by both works he played.

The one non-French work of the evening was Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, the second instalment of the TSO's Liszt concerto cycle in this bicentennial year. Liszt composed it after his glamour years of touring Europe as a pianistic sex object. What a strange piece it is! – I’m surprised the Disney people didn’t use in Fantasia. It is a set of variations on the Dies Irae (“Day of wrath”) section from the medieval Mass for the Dead. Parts of the work are exceedingly doom-laden, then other parts downright jaunty, and throughout there are pyrotechnics that exist just for their own sake. Gratuitous it might be, but it’s also zanily rousing.

The final work was Florent Schmitt’s symphonic poem La Tragédie de Salomé. Schmitt composed a ballet score for a Parisian impresario in 1907, the same year Richard Strauss’s opera was presented in Paris. In 1910 he created the symphonic poem from the ballet material, shortening the work by half (to 20 minutes or so) while quadrupling the size of the orchestra, thus permitting him to use the full colours of every instrumental section.

Schmitt dedicated this version of the work to his somewhat younger colleague/rival Igor Stravinsky who was also busily composing ballet scores for Paris at the time. It is regarded as a precursor to The Rite of Spring and, like that work, is divided into two parts, the first ending with a great climax. The conductor cleverly managed to quash the incipient applause as he launched Part II, “Les Enchantements sur la mer” (“The Enchantements of the Sea”), which leads to a “Danse des éclairs” (“Dance of Lightening”) and finally a “Danse de l’effroi” (“Dance of Fright”), the last with an ominous, spasmodic quality. As with the Dukas work, the various sections of the orchestra were shown off to great effect, especially the winds.

Both the Schmitt and Dukas works, for all their fine craftsmanship, are under the shadow of contemoprary works by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. The Schmitt work is also overshadowed by the Strauss opera. Still, they are worth hearing, especially when so finely performed. I’m happy to note that Maestro Denève will be returning next season.

Michael Johnson



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