“Eager and inept”: that’s how the dust-jacket for Paul Turner’s translation describes the “young love” at the center of Longus’s 2nd-century Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe. Whatever else you can say about the ballet version that Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) composed in 1912, it’s certainly not “inept.” On the contrary, the “choreographic symphony” lays claim to being the most flawlessly orchestrated work in the repertoire. It’s also one of the most passionate. Ravel had a strong neo-classical streak, and he could easily have written an archly stylized score that mirrored the antiquity of the text. Instead, he chose to mirror its drama and sensuality. Still, for all its outward polish, its inner workings are intricate—although the intricacy is a means to audience intoxication, not an end in itself. In fact, says Larry Loh, his main challenge as a conductor is to make sure that the audience is never aware of the work’s complexity—for instance, its unpredictable meters. The lightness of the dance has to prevail.
Longus’s romance, an early example of a genre that continued through the melodramatic movie serials of the 1930s on to The Princess Bride, is the story of the love between a shepherd and shepherdess (both foundlings). They’re consistently threatened by violent suitors, invading pirates, winter blizzards, and abductions; but they remain constant until their passion is consummated on the final page, a consummation brilliantly reflected in Ravel’s score.
Ravel drew two suites from his ballet. The Second is a repertoire staple, but tonight we’re also including the rarer First Suite, as well as the optional choral parts, often omitted but a key spice for the music. The First Suite begins a third of the way into the ballet, with Daphnis’s despair over Chloe’s disappearance—a well-warranted despair, since she has been captured by pirates whose violent music soon takes over. We then skip over Chloe’s dramatic rescue by Pan; the Second suite begins with daybreak, followed by the reunion of the lovers and a general dance of joy. That daybreak music, by the way, with its glimmers of light and its awakening birds, may well be the most beautiful music in the repertoire (although a competitor is Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which we’ll be featuring on our last Masterworks concert this season).
The concert is filled out with two other works inspired by Greek literature centering on love. It opens with a treasure even rarer than the first Daphnis Suite: the 1883 tone poem Andromède by French composer Augusta Holmès (1847–1903). Holmès, like so many women composers, has been forgotten. But she was one of Franck’s protégées, was much admired by Saint-Saëns, and was praised by Liszt for her “extraordinary talents”; and resisting the social pressure on women to write in smaller forms, she worked on a vast canvas, taking on the then-advanced language of Liszt and Wagner to produce operas, large-scale choral works, and hefty symphonic poems like the one we’re hearing tonight.
Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia of Aetheopia; when her mother boasted that her daughter’s beauty exceeded that of Poseidon’s groupies, the Neireids, Poseidon sent the monster Cetus as revenge. The only way to save kingdom was to sacrifice Andromeda by chaining her to a rock in the harbor. Fortunately, she was rescued by Perseus, riding on the winged horse Pegasus. As is clear from the poem that Holmès wrote to precede the score, the music emphasizes the rescue and its erotic aftermath. The churning of the sea, the battle music and Pegagus’s soaring, the languid beauty of the distant fields (with its “flowers of light and flames of honey”) to which Perseus takes Andromeda: Holmès takes full advantage of the pictorial opportunities of the story, ending up, it almost seems, where the Second Suite of Daphnis begins. But there’s another step, too: Holmès was a strong advocate for political liberation—and her work is also intended as an image of hopeful transport, through “winged poetry and immortal love,” for all humanity.
The centerpiece between these two opulently scored French works is a rather different take on Greek literature, for smaller orchestral forces: the Serenade for violin, strings, harp, and percussion by Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). Composed in 1954—around same time as Candide, West Side Story, and On the Waterfront—the Serenade takes off from what the composer dubbed Plato’s “charming” dialogue, The Symposium. Plato’s work dramatizes a series of interconnected speeches about the meaning of love; Bernstein translates that conversation into a musical form in which each movement, in in his words, “evolves out of elements in the preceding one.” This gives the composer a chance to describe many different kinds of love, from the gentle “fairy-tale” love of the Aristophanes movement to the lyrical outpouring of Agathon. And Bernstein being Bernstein, the final movement—which begins with Socrates—is interrupted by Alcibiades and some partiers. “If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music,” says the composer, “but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”
How important are the details of the philosophical program? Probably not very; according to tonight’s soloist, Elina Vähälä, the music “works perfectly, even if you’ve never read the dialogue.” Indeed, she thinks it’s possible that while the Plato was a springboard that inspired Bernstein, once he “started writing, it went its own way.” In any case, what she likes most is “the way every movement has its special, magical atmosphere.” One of Bernstein’s virtues is his ability both to “entertain” and to go “deep and beautiful—and also sarcastic, sometimes!” That’s clearly in evidence in the Serenade. “It’s got a full range from very tender and innocent music to dramatic pathos—and then there’s that tremendous jazz party at the end.”
It’s a workout for the soloist, too—although it rarely sounds that way. Some virtuoso pieces—say, the Liszt Piano Concertos—are written so idiomatically for the instrument that they can sound even more difficult than they are. This piece, like Daphnis, has to seem a lot less difficult than it really is. Thus, Elina, points out the first movement appears carefree—“but it’s not carefree to play! Even so, it must sound as easy as possible.”
In 2018, the Serenade was the most frequently performed concerto around the world, edging out such standards as the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. That was partly, of course, because of the Bernstein centennial—but, as should be clear after tonight’s performance, it was also because of the magic that Elina talks about.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org