Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) gave us the finest, most well liked French music from the turn of the 20th century -- the era of "impressionism." That they came from such disparate backgrounds and were such temperamental opposites makes it remarkable that their music, in many ways, sounds so much alike. Friday's ISO program under podium guest Carlo Rizzi offered two Ravel repertoire standards encasing a Debussy warhorse and an early Debussy work for chorus, orchestra and two sopranos-- La Damosielle élue -- last heard here in 1953 under then music director Fabien Sevitzky.
Of course any excuse to hear Henry Leck's marvelous Indianapolis Children's Choir makes La Damosielle a worthwhile endeavor. Two sopranos added to the mix were Isabel Bayrakdarian and Christine Brandes, singing respectively The Blessed Damsel and the Narrator. Having written it in 1888, Debussy had yet to reach his maturity, such that orchestra, choir and soloists did not offer so much impressionism as they did Wagnerism, as Debussy started off emulating, in part, the German music dramatist. Choir and orchestra blended well together throughout the work's 25 minutes. Each singing separately, Bayrakdarian (of Armenian heritage) projected throughout the hall while Brandes' voice barely got off stage.
The choir returned after the break to sing "Sirènes" (Sirens), the third of Debussy's three well-known Nocturnes after Rizzi and his orchestra offered the first two: "Nuages" (Clouds) and "Fêtes" (Festivals). Special accolades go to Roger Roe's English horn solo work in "Nuages" and to the orchestra's precision and verve in "Fêtes." But the choir, singing wordlessly, and the orchestra produced the most heartfelt reaction in "Sirènes."
Rizzi began the program with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919), a modern take on French Baroque dance forms, including Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon. In this performance no French horns were used, with the winds almost dominating the strings while making the orchestral colors rather exotic sounding. Though principal Jennifer Christen deserves praise for her outstanding oboe work, the performance as a whole seemed just a tad lethargic.
The concert concluded with Ravel's La Valse (1919), a parody on the Viennese waltz resulting from the loss of many of the composer's friends during WWI. Though Rizzi had his players following his dictates to a farthing, including many tempo nuances and thus making his reading exciting as pure music, he failed to reveal Ravel's parodistic elements. Only our previous music director, Mario Venzago, maintained a strict, unrelenting tempo in his 2006 and 2008 ISO performances, conveying the rather more stark emotion the composer was after. Nov. 15-16; Hilbert Circle Theatre
Note: Because of the special stand erected upstage for the Children's Choir, the double basses had to return to their former location along the right side, with the cellos returning to their former right-front position. This had been the orchestral layout forever, prior to Krzysztof Urbański's assumption as music director two seasons ago. He had strung out the basses on a short riser in back of the stage while reversing the viola and cello sections' placements. Clearly the basses' deeper sounds made their way to the First Mezzanine more audibly than in their upstage location. Perhaps that's not the way Urbański hears it from the podium, but he should consider whom orchestral balance is supposed to benefit.