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Ravel & Saint-Saëns: Soloists, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 06.10.2006 (BH)



Ravel: L’enfant et les sortilèges  (1924-25)

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (1886)



Susanne Mentzer, Mezzo-Soprano

Patrizia Ciofi, Soprano

Jessica Jones, Soprano

Isabel Leonard, Mezzo-Soprano

Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Philippe Castagner, Tenor

Ian Greenlaw, Baritone

Kevin Deas, Bass

New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, director

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun, director

Kent Tritle, Organ



Two unusual instruments figure prominently in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges: a slide whistle, and a piano-luthéal (created in 1919 by Belgian organ builder Georges Cloetens), a grand piano with quills and dampers that affect the sound of the strings.  Slide whistles are known quantities in today’s percussion sections, but since the sole remaining example of the piano-luthéal is in the Brussels Conservatory, the enterprising Lorin Maazel converted an upright piano by twisting strips of paper through the strings to approximate the timbre.  This was just a single example of the colors pulsing through this wild, sometimes wacky, but always glittering score.

In L’enfant, a small, impudent boy causes everything around him, both inanimate (e.g., a teapot, a clock) and animate (e.g., two cats, a tree frog) to rise up in enchanted disgust at his behavior, but at the end he realizes that his life is better if he is nice.  (I’m not passing judgment, just reporting the news.)  The cast was uniformly superb, singing and acting with the commitment of a fully staged performance.  As the boy, Susanne Mentzer looked quite Harry Potter-esque, perched on a stool in a straight black coat and glasses, and fairly reveled in the character’s naughtiness, sticking out her tongue and pouting, folding her arms.  Her impish façade however, gave no clue to the huge, clear voice lurking within. Patrizia Ciofi was an ethereal Fire, with some delicate filigree alternating with sweeping high notes.  Isabel Leonard and Ian Greenlaw basically brought down the house as a pair of sonorous cats, “meowing” in a hilariously sultry duet, and Jessica Jones’ rich, light soprano was perfect for the Shepherdess, a Bat, an Owl – and a Bergère Chair.  (To my knowledge this is one of the few operas with roles for pieces of furniture.)  Philippe Castagner was hilarious in roles as diverse as a teapot and the aforementioned tree frog, each benefiting from his beautiful tenor and feisty articulation.  As a chair and a tree, bass Kevin Deas was especially memorable as the latter, whose sap is dripping from a wound from being cut.

The excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus, patiently waiting, made the most of an entrancing scene in which they run mental circles around the boy by chanting arithmetic, with exceptionally crisp diction that enabled the words to be heard even without the supertitles on the monitor above the stage.  Maazel was hilarious here, mock-frowning and egging them on with one hand like some slightly demented uncle, perhaps one obsessed with mathematics and ensuring that every last equation falls into place.  And the New York Choral Artists, ardent all the way through, were the highlight of the stirring final moments, singing, “He is good, he is wise” and really meaning it. 

As if all this superb vocalizing weren’t enough, Maazel and the orchestra fairly danced through the score’s unusual colors, the ensemble’s plumage showing once again how versatile the group can be.  I wish some of the subtle shading here had found its way to the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, which was marvelous in many ways but also probably the loudest performance of this piece I have ever heard.  Now believe me, I’m the last person to complain about loud music, but in this case the dynamic range seemed to start from too high a plateau.  Rather than soft, mezzo-forte and loud (and louder), the choices often began with loud, and escalated up from there, resulting in a certain deadening quality, just when you wanted the excitement to peak.

Maazel found a vigorous, often violent tone in the first movement, and to his credit the gentleness in the middle was most welcome, with the strings in rapturous, sustained waves, eventually drifting slowly to rest.  The superb Kent Tritle did about as well as one could imagine on the (electronic) organ, choosing timbres that both meshed well with the ensemble but allowed portions to float above it when needed.  And except for some of the bone-crushing climaxes, the sound design was actually quite good, the organ sound emitted from an array of roughly ten speakers high along the back wall of the stage.  Given that the audience went absolutely crazy after the final shattering chord, it is inconceivable to me that this piece had not been performed at the Philharmonic since 1990 since it is clearly beloved by many.  Listeners around the world will probably have a chance to find out since the elaborate microphone setup appeared to be custom-designed to pick up each of the vocal parts in the Ravel, and I hope this is one of the concerts that will end up on iTunes – one of the orchestra’s best recent innovations.



Bruce Hodges


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