Seattle Philharmonic – November 15, 2009: Ravel & Debussy

The Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 2009/2010 season Sunday with music by Ravel and Debussy in a delightful concert that was the perfect refuge on a dark rainy afternoon.  Conductor Adam Stern assembled a program of mostly little-known works culminating in the ever crowd-pleasing Boléro .

The selections allowed each section of the orchestra to shine.  The brass opened both halves of the concert with short fanfares: on the first half the fanfare from Ravel’s L’Evantail de Jeanne , and on the second two fanfares from Debussy’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.  The low brass’ opening of the Debussy was particularly striking.  The principal woodwind players (flute Sharon Snel, oboe Donna Onat, clarinet Marianne Lacaille, and bassoon Jacob Kauffman) each shone in Debussy’s Petit Suite, as they did again in the Boléro, and in numerous solo moments in between.  Soft horn chorale passages in Debussy’s King Lear were particularly lovely.

bolerofullRavel’s Piano Concerto in G was composed from 1929 to 1931, following Ravel’s return from a piano tour of America, and pianist Kimberly Russ’ assured performance made clear Ravel’s affection for American jazz, particularly in the first movement’s Gershwinesque passages.  The second movement featured Della Friend in a fine extended solo on English horn.  Pianist with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Russ clearly deserved this turn as featured soloist.

While the Piano Concerto

and Boléro were the featured large works, the program’s kingpin was the Sarabande, composed for piano by Debussy and orchestrated by Ravel, their collaboration thereby knitting the entire program together.  As with the more familiar Boléro, the Sarabande opens with a familiar theme delicately introduced, then builds in swells of emotion and sensitive balance to a clear and robust statement by the full orchestra, showing off each section of the orchestra en route in great swaths of brilliant autumn color.  Stern’s interpretation of both works emphasized contrast, which allowed the Boléro to maintain interest despite its familiarity.  While the Boléro finale did not fail to please, it was the Sarabande which was the surprise delight.

I look forward to the remainder of the Seattle Philharmonic’s season, as each program will feature lesser known works (Holst and Lorin Maazel in January; Reznicek and Hindemith in March; Elgar, Gordeli and Bartók in May) that are bound to include yet more gratifying discoveries.

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