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Voila! Virtuoso Pianist Louie Lortie Reveals ‘The Magic of Chopin’ During Pacific Symphony’s Evocative, French-Infused Concert That Also Taps the Brilliance of Mozart, Debussy and Ravel
Orange County, Calif. — March 30, 2017
Viva la France! For Pacific Symphony’s upcoming concert, two of the brightest French-Canadian classical music stars—celebrated pianist Louis Lortie and acclaimed guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni—perform a program inspired by the spirit of France with music by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The program, glittering with a French aesthetic, begins with Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, “Paris,” which he wrote specifically to please and impress Parisian audiences. Chopin called “The City of Lights” home for most of his adult life, and his “Piano Concerto No. 2” dazzles like Paris after dusk when performed by the remarkable Lortie. Debussy and Ravel are simply two of France’s greatest composers. Debussy’s “Ibéria” is a departure, venturing into Spain, while Ravel’s seductive “La Valse” rounds out the Symphony’s program.
BBC Music Magazine commented on Lortie’s gifts as an interpreter of Chopin by saying: “Lortie is a model Chopinist: eloquent but never sentimental, elegant, harmonically luminous, structurally immaculate—and surprising.” In 1984, Lortie was the first-prize winner in the Busoni Competition and also a prizewinner in the Leeds Competition.
The concert “The Magic of Chopin” takes place Thursday through Saturday, April 27-29, 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-$125 (Box Circle, $195). For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.
Frédéric Chopin’s name is a little deceiving. Born Fryderyk Chopin, he was actually a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for the solo piano. So how can a concert featuring a concerto by a Polish nationalist and a symphony by an Austrian legend (Mozart) be considered “all-French”? It can if the symphony is Mozart’s “Paris” symphony and the concerto is by Chopin, who considered Poland the fatherland, but Paris his home—presented alongside two featured French works.
Born in 1810, Chopin was quickly labeled a prodigy with a talent for music composition. At just 7 his teacher notated one of his improvisations and had it published, and soon he was writing music himself. His first rondo for solo piano was published in 1825. Five years later, Chopin unveiled his remarkably beautiful Piano Concerto in F minor, now known as No. 2. Its success in Warsaw made the composer a national hero in Poland. (His concerto that is now known as No. 1, in E minor, was actually composed later, though in the same year as No. 2.) But at age 21, Chopin arrived in Paris with Polish soil in his possession—and never left.
He so closely identified with the piano that every work Chopin composed featured the instrument, and his concertos are his largest-scale works that engage the orchestra. He was unrivaled in his ability to create poignant harmonies that far surpassed that of the opera composers who inspired him. All of the treasured elements of a more mature artist are to be found in abundance in his Concerto No. 2—sumptuous melodies, enchanting harmonies and unforgettable resonance.
Mozart, just 22 in the spring of 1778, traveled to Paris with his ill mother. A performance there of his music by an Italian composer upset him so greatly he used the word “sabotage” to describe what had been done to it. To assuage his feelings, the director of the concert asked Mozart to write a new symphony. It was an opportunity for the young composer to really make his mark. Years earlier, as a harpsichord prodigy, Mozart had created a sensation in the French capital—but now, his music went over the heads of French nobility. It seemed too dense. There were just “too many notes.” One review observed: “The composer obtained the commendation of lovers of the kind of music that interests the mind without touching the heart.”
Following the death of his mother in 1779, Mozart returned to Salzburg. However, his time in Paris resulted in one magnificent triumph: the Symphony No. 31 in D Major. The “Paris” Symphony took advantage of the large orchestra Mozart had at his disposal. The opening movement of the “Paris” Symphony was one of the most thrilling sounds Mozart ever made with an orchestra. He loved that in his symphony he could use clarinets, which he had heard for the first time before coming to Paris; there are also horns, trumpets and timpani and a full compliment of woodwinds—flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons—the biggest orchestra Mozart had ever employed. It was a spectacular hit.
A cunning Mozart wrote to his father: “In the middle of the opening allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored.”
In the late 19th century, Claude Debussy, along with Maurice Ravel, was a leading exponent of the new musical language, French Impressionism. Debussy gave the title “Images” to three of his compositions: two sets of solo piano pieces (1905 and 1908), and the orchestral triptych of which “Ibéria” is the central work. A triptych within the larger triptych of “Images,” “Ibéria” consists of: “Through Streets and Lanes,” “The Fragrances of the Night” and “Morning of a Holiday.” With its evocations of the Spanish life, castanets and Moorish-sounding melodies, it’s easy to assume Debussy had immersed himself in life in Andalucia and Valencia, spent hours viewing Goya at the Prado and hiked the Pyrenees with Basque-speaking guides.
But, in fact, the Frenchman had made exactly one 24-hour trip to Spain, specifically to the border town of San Sebastian in order to see a bullfight. When he composed his symphony about the sea, “La Mer,” in 1905, Debussy’s entire experience of the subject was limited to two crossings of the English Channel. Debussy wrote: “Without false pride, I feel that these three pieces hold together well, and that they will find their place in the literature of the piano…to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin...”
Ravel was fascinated by the waltz form; as early as 1911 he had composed his suite “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” but the pull of the waltz preoccupied him much earlier than that—at least as far back as 1906, when he intended to orchestrate a concert waltz as a tribute to Johann Strauss II. As his ideas for “La Valse” (composed in 1919-20) took hold, Ravel intended to name it with the French word for Vienna, “Vienne,” and then the German, “Wien.” He famously described the effect he desired as “dancing on the edge of a volcano.”
For all its beauty and aura of breathtaking romance, a sense of foreboding surrounds “La Valse,” which gives the listener a clear sense of European civilization’s luxurious refinements and the shadow of their destruction. Ambitious, perhaps, for a 13-minute dance score—but Ravel had been an ambulance driver on the front lines of World War I, and like most Europeans, he was deeply affected by the most horrific apocalypse that humanity had ever created. The downfall of beauty and order was on his mind.
The waltz theme in “La Valse” is irresistible, but tinged with decadence, which grows ever larger. The music draws the audience in with its seductive splendor, yet somehow it also
feels threatening. Ravel had described this dangerous beauty as “a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.” In his preface to the score, he notes: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees…an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth… Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”
Pacific Symphony’s Classical Series is made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, and receives additional support from The Westin South Coast Plaza, KUSC and PBS SoCal.
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