Symphony celebrates French color

Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2004

Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett says he neglects French music. By that, he means that in the five years he's worked with the symphony, his programs have been dominated with American, Russian and German works. His forays into French have been mostly through Impressionist composer Claude Debussy.

So here's his opportunity to redeem himself in front of le auditoire. Once it was settled that the Symphony and Opera To Go would collaborate on Maurice Ravel's "L'enfant et les Sortileges," Wiley Pickett added three more French selections to the evening. Camille Saint-Saens, Gabriel Fauré, Debussy and Ravel will take the crowd from the Philistines to a court dance to a harp showcase and finally, to a 45-minute theater of the surreal.

"You get some different things from French music than German music," Wiley Pickett said. "French music doesn't tend to be as complicated or as complex, but it's just sort of very melodic and tuneful. It gives you different ideas about sound and color, more than about structure and form. It really is something that you can sit back and just let wash over you."

The evening will begin with Saint-Saen (1835-1921) and his "Bacchanale" from "Sampson et Dalila," the most well-known of his 13 operas. It's a good place to start, as the composer's Biblical tale of the Hebrews and the Philistines is opulent, but nowhere near as wild as Ravel.

"Saint-Saens was certainly romantic," Wiley Pickett said, "but he was much more conservative than Ravel."

Saint-Saens then turns thing over to one of his students, Faure (1845-1924), who promptly takes a detour to Italy for "Pavane, Opus 50." It's a nostalgic look at the pavane, a Spanish-influenced processional court dance that was a popular choice for couples at grand Italian balls in the 16th century. Faure wrote it in 1887, a time when composers were looking to old dance forms for inspiration.

"It comes from a dance form, but the dance is partly removed from what you get," Wiley Pickett said. "It really tests out our woodwinds, especially our flute. And so it's just a simple, sweet piece, and people will know it when they hear it."

As the French admire the flute, so too do they love the harp. And harpist Candace LiVolsi, the principal harpist for Wiley-Pickett's North State Symphony in Redding, Calif., is featured in Debussy's (1862-1918) "Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane" or "Sacred and Profane Dances." Filled with timbre, the concerto is a showcase for strings and harp. It's the Symphony's first major harp work since it bought LiVolsi's harp last year.

Around the turn of the century, Debussy was going in one direction, Arnold Schoenberg was experimenting with 12-tone technique in Vienna, Strauss and Mahler were continuing romantic German music and Bartok was tinkering with folk sounds. Music was branching off every which way, and Ravel was charting his own path. "L'enfant" was groundbreaking for its time, but is still somewhat obscure. It requires a large orchestra, and it's short. Because of its length, it's often paired with his first opera, the musical-comedy "L'heure espagnole" or "The Spanish Clock"

"(L'Enfant) is pretty radical in a lot of ways; I would describe it as being modernist," Wiley Pickett said. "There are a couple of clear jazz-influenced spots where you can hear American vaudeville-style jazz: the teapot, teacup with the trombone. Ravel has taken a whole bunch of styles and put them together in one thing that holds up as a whole. He uses a lot of sounds for effect, and that's different than what was going on 20 to 40 years earlier. For that he owes to Debussy, that kind of impressionism."

"If there is such as thing as French jazz than Ravel invented it," said Philippe Damerval, a native of France who plays an armchair and a black cat in the opera. "It's very syncopated. It kind of reminds you of movie music, doesn't it? It's not melodic. It's not dissonant either. It seems that the musicals are sitting there and trying to play whatever comes into their minds about what's happening. That's Ravel. That's what he was into."

Wiley Pickett has worked with "L'enfant" before. He was earning his Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in orchestral conducting from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Mary., when he was the assistant conductor for a version based on the psychological implications of furniture coming to life.

"The conductor had everybody dress in the same clothes as the child, only psychedelic," WIley Pickett said. "The child was in a white sailor suit, and he outfitted everyone else in pink and green sailor suits. They all pantomimed; the clock and the squirrel and all the characters."

"That's when I really fell in love with the piece," Wiley Pickett said. "I've been looking for an opportunity or trying to make an opportunity to do it again. And I thought we could really do the show with all the local singers and not have to bring anybody in. All the parts are very doable. It's not like doing something like (Verdi's) 'La traviata,' where you have a tenor that can carry a three-hour long opera. It's the kind of piece where everybody gets to do a little chunk."

Ravel constantly changes meter, so the timing is the biggest challenge for the orchestra. Even when the symphony is not playing, they must count as they rest and compensate for shifts in tempo.

"I honestly think there are two spots that are just spectacular," Wiley Pickett said. "The first one is the transformation where the house becomes the garden. You get the strings and the slide whistle, and it's just one of the most beautiful moments that I can think of in music. The other one, the final chorus, where the cast sings, 'He is good, the child, he is wise," is just gorgeous. It's just plain beautiful. Those two moments prompted me to fall in love with it."

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