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Jean Oelrich
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Desires, dreams, jazz and love: Pacific Symphony visits 19th century France for “Ravel’s Piano Concerto,” featuring pianist Alexandre Tharaud and guest conductor Thierry Fischer

February 19, 2014

Surging with energy, spontaneity and diversity, Pacific Symphony’s upcoming concert—“Ravel’s Piano Concerto”—is devoted to music from 19th-century France. Guest conductor Thierry Fischer leads the orchestra in an evening of impressionist and romantic music that includes Debussy’s dreamy “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Berlioz’s theatrical Suite from “Romeo and Juliet.” Described by Chicago Classical Review as “the real thing—a musician of clear intelligence, technical skill and podium personality, drawing performances that blend impeccable balancing, textural clarity and fizzing exhilaration,” Maestro Fischer generates a tangible excitement during his concerts. Playing Ravel’s masterful Piano Concerto in G Major is French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who gripped The New York Times during his Carnegie Hall debut “with a sensation of the full span of keyboard music history lying nascent in [the] gemlike pieces” of his performance. Hailed as an “atmospheric, characterful pianist” by The Guardian, Tharaud’s individuality shines with stimulating, poised pianism.

The concert takes place Thursday through Saturday, March 6-8, at 8 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; a preview talk with Alan Chapman begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25-$99; for more information or to purchase tickets call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

“The program features a festival of French lineaments. Desires and dreams in Debussy, jazz in Ravel and a passionate dramatic love story in Berlioz!” says Maestro Fischer.

The program begins with Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a landmark in Western music and cultural history. Described as the cornerstone of Impressionism in music, the Prelude captures Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, “Afternoon of a Faun.” When he heard the piece in concert, Mallarmé admired Debussy’s success in capturing the poem’s elusive and all-important qualities of mood.

Continuing the melodic theme, Ravel’s Piano Concerto is the showpiece that his admirers awaited for years. Written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, the Concerto combines Basque and Spanish melodies, jazz riffs and a childhood fascination with mechanical toys.

Considering the variety of styles in the piece, Fischer says, “In the case of this concerto in G Major, Ravel, a ‘classical’ composer, was simply very inspired, almost fascinated by jazz and Spanish folklore. He managed to write one of the most fascinating piano concertos, mixing colors, influences and rhythms, without forgetting his great talent for creating beauty, in mixing extreme virtuosity and the most melancholic melodies we can ever dream about.”

The Concerto is performed by French pianist Tharaud, who has distinguished himself on the international stage as an artist of unique vision and originality and is heralded for his brilliantly conceived programs and best-selling recordings that range from Bach, Chopin, Rameau and Ravel to music inspired by Paris cabaret of the 1920s. His playing has been praised in The New York Times as “exquisite, crisp and beautifully textured” and noted for its combination of “refinement and daring,” and in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a “sense of detail that reflected his whole-body commitment to making the piano speak the unspeakable.”

The Symphony’s evening concludes with Berlioz’s Suite from “Romeo and Juliet.” Overwhelmed by an 1827 performance of the tragic play, Berlioz found himself on his knees, almost unable to breathe, consumed by the force of the acting and the sound of Shakespeare’s words. He became obsessed with Shakespeare and plunged into a vivid evocation of a world of family feuds and tragic love.

“Berlioz is known for pushing limits, in all senses—both in his orchestral writing and in his need to express his personal feelings, dramas, turmoil and despairs,” says Fischer. “We know that Berlioz was completely electrified by a performance of Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ His own ‘Romeo and Juliet’ captures all the Shakespearean drama of this couple, with the most authenticity you could hope for. Every bar of the Berlioz piece symbolizes passion, extreme hopes and disappointment, hate and love, life and death, unfairness and fairness, urge and fatality. Almost scary! It is an absolute delight to perform this masterwork.”

Swiss conductor Fischer recently renewed his contract as music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, where he has revitalized the music-making and programming, and brought a new energy to the orchestra and organization as a whole. His hallmarks are a lightness of touch and transparency of texture, allowing room for vivid characterization. He has a keen stylistic sense and has given many world premieres, and has instigated a major commissioning program in Utah, which began in spring 2012 with a cello concerto for Jean-Guihen Queyras composed by Michael Jarrell, which he also conducts with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 2014.

Pacific Symphony’s Classical series performances are made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, with additional support from American Airlines, Avenue of the Arts Hotel, KUSC and PBS SoCal.