The Albany Symphony Orchestra ended its 2012-13 season with its customary adios, this time with an exciting touch in its guest soloist, clarinetist Narek Arutyunian.
The program built up to his youthful vigor beginning with the sensuous, famous “Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun” (Prelude d’une après midi d’une Faune) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). This music always tests an orchestra’s ability at sensitive playing, what with its broad variety of delicate mood changes. It exhibits the composer’s mastery of orchestration and expression of delicate and carefully nuanced ideas. To say that Debussy was a master of orchestration is an understatement. The orchestra’s realization of this masterpiece was entirely satisfactory.
The following Symphony in C Major by Georges Bizet (1838-75) could hardly be more different than his compatriot’s work above. Listeners associate the name Bizet with his popular opera — Carmen. This is another kind of masterwork that influenced several subsequent composers to go back, as he did, to the symphonies of Haydn (1732-1809.) and Mozart (1791-1844). among these are Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) with his Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which he actually called a “Classical Symphony.”
The 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote one which he called A symphony in Three Movements. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote a Sinfonietta for string Orchestra. Benjamin Britten (1913-76) composed a Symphony for String orchestra (1933-34). These may not be all the creations following Bizet’s efforts to dip into the “classical” symphonic modes enriched by Haydn and Mozart. We might say (with tongue in cheek) that Beethoven may well have been (at least partly) the cause of all this seeking after new grounds to cover. We feel somewhat more certain that artistic nationalism played its part as well.
The post intermission fare began with the excitement of young Narak Arutyunian playing his clarinet in the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Jean Francaix (1912-97). This is a vibrant work that seems to have been written with virtuosos like Arutyunian in mind.
It seems that Francaix made the piece as difficult as he could. It has that verve and energy that this young man matched with similar vigor as he seemed to dance in his stage space, kissing his instrument often whenever the music allowed him space. He reminded us of virtuosos of the Bebop and rock music eras — the “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Led Zepplin folks — seeming with his caresses to be saying: “C’mon baby, do your thing with me. Don’t let me down now! We got t’get through this thing together; and the instrument answering back: don’t worry, my man; I’m right with you. Jus’ keep on tellin’ me what t’ do and we’ll do it, jus’ like we always do.”
And this they did, and brought the house down.
Maestro Hillard drove his musicians to the end with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. Commentators sometime snidely remark that this piece has seen its best days, hinting that it’s high time that this music be put out of its misery by shelving it. We doubt that’ll happen any time soon. Perhaps some have forgotten that Ravel was a master of orchestration.
We suggest that if it has become tiresome listening to the short theme repeated ad infinitum that they listen more closely to this aspect of the music; they might find “new things” happening in the orchestra. Intermix this with the gradually building mountain of sound that begins to assail one’s ears like an approaching, then passing locomotive and it might occur to them that this music is once again exciting and enjoyable.
As usual, Maestro Hillard ends his programs on a high note, so to speak, stimulating his hearers to come back next season to hear what goodies he has in store for them.
James Marquis is emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.