Ravishing Ravel at Marin Symphony

Piano soloist David Fung. Click for full photo.

by  Abby Wasserman 

Remarks from Conductor Alasdair Neale introduced Marin Symphony’s March 4 French-themed concert by extolling the “glittering orchestral colors” of Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Morning in Spring), begun in 1917 as a duet for violin and piano and completed as an orchestral tone poem in 1918.

The younger sister of composer and une maîtresse enseignante Nadia Boulanger, Lili was a prodigy nurtured by her musical family and their musician friends, who included Gabriel Fauré. She was highly respected, winning the Prix de Rome when she was only 19—the first woman to do so. Mr. Neale called her output “a small, beautiful arsenal of music.”

D’un matin de printemps could be described as the gradual awakening of a spring day. In this performance, glistening orchestral colors evoked the sun’s heat, mist rising off a pond, shimmering breezes, silvery bird calls, parting clouds, the busy hum of insects. Simple melodies ascended and descended in small packs of notes. It was music to imagine by—until the end, when a sudden spitting chord (minimized in this performance) appears to signal death.

The ebullient pianist David Fung was the soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and the music began with a loud crack!, like the whip of a circus ringmaster urging on galloping ponies. The concerto’s first movement is circus-like, summoning the spirit of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It's known that Ravel wanted to move away from the romantic conception of the concerto as a battleground for soloist and orchestra, and indeed he did in this luminous work, splendidly performed by Mr. Fung and the orchestra. The concerto richly blends orchestra and soloist, and Mr. Fung revealed after the concert that he has performed the concerto 50 times, and finds fresh inspiration each time.

After the first movement (which has a gorgeous harp cadenza-like passage), the second Adagio movement was a shimmering slow waltz full of small surprises and exotic tonalities. The music would calm even the most turbulent spirit - hypnotic, textured with piquant harmonic intervals - as though it was an improvisation done in a trance. Mr. Fung’s delicacy of touch in the Adagio’s long solo opening was lovely, as were his feather-light trills, and each section of the orchestra contributed to an intricate dream-like mood. The third movement was explosive and alive with screeches and wails and rumbles, the piano playing lightning fast and always virtuosic.

Following intermission, soprano soloist Nikki Enfield and the Marin Symphony Chorus performed the Poulenc Gloria. Written in 1959 and one of Poulenc’s four powerful vocal works on liturgical themes, Gloria consists of six movements starting with a triumphal fanfare. The trombones then preface the Laudamus te, which is a kind of call and response. The vocal power of the Marin Symphony chorus (Kevin Fox, director) coupled with the bright sonorities of the orchestra, created excitement. Domine deus began quietly, communicating religious awe and exaltation, and ended with three shout-like utterances. Ms. Enfield then stood to sing the exquisite soprano part in Domini Fili unigenite, a tragic lamentation.

The fifth part, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, was spritely and brief, and Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris began with fine woodwind playing that was joined by sliding phrases of strings (evoking Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music). Ms. Enfield’s pure soprano, like a beam of light, rendered the movement ethereal. The final Amen offered peace and resolution. When the last notes died out, the three-quarters capacity audience gave a standing ovation.

The final work was Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, a one-act ballet based on the Greek myth that was first choreographed by Diaghilev in Paris in 1912. Its richly sensuous musical tapestry included watery woodwinds, string arpeggios, and a choral part that could have been the sirens calling to Odysseus. It was lulling and suspenseful at the same time. Particular standouts were harpists Dan Levitan and Anna Maria Mendieta, a long, haunting passage from flutist MyungJu Yeo, and the balanced and elegant choral singing. The Suite ended with a celebratory dance. If I had been a sailor on the sea, this music would have lured me onto the rocks.

At the conclusion, choral director Mr. Fox shared a standing ovation with Mr. Neale, chorus and orchestra. Robin Sharp, one of four candidates to replace Jeremy Constant, was guest concertmaster. 

Published at classicalsonoma.org on March 7, 2023.