All NAC performances and events cancelled until Monday April 27, 2020

Lisiecki and Ravel

Reflection

Tonight we enjoy masterful music by two masterful composers. A man revered for his attention to detail, his sophistication and his craftsmanship, Ravel was also a composer of music that is utterly approachable and often truly ravishing. These qualities ooze through his three works this evening. I am very happy that we can welcome back Canada’s own wunderkind, Jan Lisiecki, who will also join us on our European Tour with this concerto. 

A Quebecois orphan boy who was tragically murdered at the age of 34, Claude Vivier was also one of Canada’s most gifted and influential composers. His Lonely Child is a ‘long song of solitude’ and one of his most haunting creations. A warm welcome back to Erin Wall, who will also travel to Europe with us performing this work.

Reflection

Ravel was an amazing composer who succeeded in blending styles, and mixing different musical ideas. His Piano Concerto in G major is a blend of jazz and classical – one can hear elements reminiscent of dance as well as a hauntingly beautiful solo by the English horn, for instance, and various other orchestral instruments.

The rich textures and colours of the piano in this piece are particular to Ravel and demonstrate the impressionist nature of the music.

It’s a concerto I very much love, and I am looking forward to sharing it with the audience at the National Arts Centre. 


In 1975, Mario Bernardi led the NAC Orchestra's first performance of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, and the Orchestra's most recent performance was conducted by Juraj Valčuha in 2012.

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In 1987, the NAC Orchestra performed Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child for the first time with Gabriel Chmura conducting and Sylvia McNair as soloist. When the ensemble played this work again in 1994, under the direction of Samuel Wong, Pauline Vaillancourt was the soloist.

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Mario Bernardi led the NAC Orchestra from the piano in their first performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G in 1971, and the Orchestra’s most recent interpretation of this work took place in 2015 with Inon Barnatan at the piano and Matthias Pintscher at the podium. Soloists who have performed this work with the Orchestra over the years include Alexander Toradze, Louis Lortie, Kirill Gerstein and Angela Hewitt.

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The NAC Orchestra played Ravel’s Boléro for the first time in 1986 in a Pops show led by Boris Brott, with dance performed by Veronica Tennant. Their most recent performance of the work was given in 2015 with Alexander Shelley conducting.


Ravel

Suite from Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)

Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875
Died in Paris, December 28, 1937

When Ravel found himself in the innocent world of children, his normal air of cool detachment and reserve melted away, for he held a deep affection and genuine warmth for young people. His own diminutive size bred a deep inferiority complex which inevitably helped him gravitate to the worlds of children and animals, both of which are prominent features of his Mother Goose Suite. 

Two of Ravel’s closest friends were the little Godebski children, Jean and Mimie. When they were still in the early stages of their piano studies, he wrote for them a four-hand piano suite tailored to their small hands and limited technical abilities. Each of the five movements was based on one of the children’s favourite fairy tales. The Suite proved to be too difficult for them to play in public, so two slightly older children (ages six and seven) were enlisted for the premiere performance, which took place in Paris on April 20, 1910. The following year, Ravel transcribed these five crystalline miniatures for orchestra. Such skill of colouristic nuance and texture went into the orchestral transcription that the listener inevitably feels that the music was originally conceived for orchestra.

In the Suite’s opening number, Ravel conjures up a magical world of childlike simplicity and idle daydreams with the sparest of means. “Petit Poucet” depicts with graphic realism an episode from the Charles Perrault story “Tom Thumb.” Tom, his plaintive whimpering portrayed first by the solo oboe, then by other woodwinds, is lost in the forest (slowly meandering lines in shifting metres for violins). “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” comes from a story by Countess Marie d’Aulnoy. The pagodas in question are not sacred buildings with tall towers found in places like China and Burma, but rather fairy-like creatures that attend to the empress in her bath. Ravel gives his music an Oriental tinge through the use of pentatonic scales, xylophone, woodblock and celesta. 

Next comes “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” the conversation taking place musically between a graceful waltz tune in the clarinet and the growling of the contrabassoon (a rare and famous solo for this ungainly-sounding instrument). “The Fairy Garden” brings the suite to a close. As Prince Charming awakens the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, the orchestra traces a long, slow crescendo that grows to a dazzling, radiant evocation of a child’s world of enchantment.

— Program notes by Robert Markow

Vivier

Lonely Child

Born in Montreal, April 14, 1948
Died in Paris, March 7, 1983

When Quebec composer Claude Vivier was murdered in his Paris apartment at the age of 34, he was already highly regarded as one of Canada’s most important composers. Since that time Vivier’s reputation has taken on almost mythic proportions, and his music continues to be performed with a regularity seldom seen in contemporary composers. Following the announcement of Vivier’s death, critic and musicologist Harry Halbreich wrote in Harmonie-Panorama Musique that “his music really resembles no other, and he puts himself right on the fringe of all trends. His music, of a direct and disruptive expression, could bewilder only those hard-hearted people who are unfit to categorize this independent man of genius. Claude Vivier found what so many others have sought for, and still seek: the secret of a truly new simplicity.”

Vivier studied in Montreal, then in Holland, France and Germany. A deep affection for Asian cultures led him to an extended stay in Bali, whose music influenced his own. A fascination with plainchant deriving from his Catholic upbringing and an abiding concern with death and immortality also coloured his music. At the time of his own death he was writing a choral piece called Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) In the preface to the published score of Lonely Child, Jaco Mijnheer writes: “The music of Claude Vivier is a reflection of his personal life.… Both directly and indirectly, the themes of his compositions were inspired by his unknown family origins, his search for his mother, his religious vocation, his homosexuality and even his premature death. The 49 works composed during his brief career comprise the impressive legacy of an individual as passionate about life as he was about music.”

Vivier composed Lonely Child in 1980 on commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Serge Garant conducted the premiere the following year with the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra and soprano Marie‑Danielle Parent. The score is dedicated to the singer Louise André, a teacher at the Université de Montréal. Lonely Child is generally regarded as Vivier’s first mature work. The 20-minute composition is framed by similar purely instrumental passages, from which its melodic material is derived. 

Vivier wrote the instrumental component first, then superimposed the text, which is mostly in French but incorporates also words from the composer’s own invented language derived from Malaysian and other languages Vivier spoke. As well as being Vivier’s first mature work, Lonely Child is also his first composition to utilize his “colours,” which Mijnheer describes as “harmonic spectra produced through the addition of frequencies.… In these ‘colours,’… the distinction between harmony and timbre disappears: the different instruments are barely discernible individually, but rather melt into the sound of the orchestra that, as such, becomes one immense instrument of colours.”

The text begins: “Beauteous child of light, sleep… forever sleep,” and ends: “Beyond time, my child appears, the stars in the sky are shining for you, Tazio, and will love you forever and ever.” It is obviously a message sung vicariously by the composer to the child of the work’s title. Vivier the orphan, Vivier the lost soul, Vivier the lonely child, is attempting, in his own words, “to reach this voice of the lonely child desiring to embrace the world with naïve love – this voice that all hear and want to dwell in forever.”

— Program notes by Robert Markow

Ravel

Piano Concerto in G major

Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875
Died in Paris, December 28, 1937

Ravel toyed with writing a piano concerto as early as 1906, according to one source, and again in 1914, but the actual composition of what became the Piano Concerto in G was undertaken between 1929 and 1931, interspersed with work on the Concerto for Left Hand. The first performance was given in Paris by the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 14, 1932. Ravel had originally intended to play the piano part himself, but because of declining health, he granted the solo role to the concerto’s dedicatee, Marguerite Long, while he conducted. Ravel and Long then set out on a 20-city tour of Europe with the concerto; Long recorded it as well, with the Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas Branco. 

A number of elements combined to influence the style and form of the Concerto. Music of the Basques is immediately evident in the opening bars, for instance, where the exuberant piccolo theme bears strong relation to the folksong style of the Basques. The second theme, played first by the piano, suggests the influence of neighbouring Spain. Ravel had spent much time in the Basque country during the summer and autumn of 1929, when he began to write the Concerto. Ravel’s Basque hometown of Ciboure (a tiny seacoast town on the Bay of Biscay where France and Spain meet) honoured him the following year, strengthening the composer’s ties to his homeland.

The jazz influence is even more pronounced, stemming from Ravel’s tour throughout the United States in 1928. He visited the jazz clubs of New Orleans and Harlem and no doubt heard, among others, Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. He struck up a mutually admiring friendship with George Gershwin. The influence of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F can be felt in Ravel’s Concerto, especially in the first movement with its “blue” notes, jazz harmonies and rhythms.

Ravel professed that “the music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects.” In this respect, his Concerto in G succeeds splendidly, and Ravel liked to refer to it as a divertissement de luxe.

— Program notes by Robert Markow

Ravel

Boléro

Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875
Died in Paris, December 28, 1937

Ever since its premiere performance on November 22, 1928 in Paris, Ravel’s Boléro has exerted a hypnotic power on listeners, achieving its effect through the repetition of a pair of sensuous melodies repeated over and over in a carefully gauged crescendo of passion culminating in a feverish orgy of sound. Each repetition of one of the themes is played by a different solo instrument or combination of instruments, all in the key of C major until the final, wrenching modulation to E major. Each theme is played twice in succession in alternating pairs (AABBAABB etc.). Throughout the 15-minute work is heard the steady, characteristic bolero rhythm in the snare drum, beginning almost inaudibly, and working up to terrifying volume while hammered out by multiple drummers.  

Ravel wrote Boléro for the beautiful dancer Ida Rubinstein and her troupe. The scenario was set in a Spanish inn (Goyaesque is often the description invoked) where a woman enacts the bolero on a table top. Men gathered around her gaze fixedly. As her movements become more animated, so too does the men’s excitement increase. They stamp their feet and pound out the rhythm with their hands. At the climactic moment, where the music shifts to E major, knives are drawn and a fight ensues.

Ravel described his work as “orchestral tissue without music... the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout without the slightest attempt at virtuosity.” Nevertheless, we often regard the work as a kind of concerto for orchestra, since virtually every instrument gets a chance to play a solo, and it is the rare musician who does not find his part difficult.

According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, a bolero is “danced by one dancer or a couple [and] includes many brilliant and intricate steps, quick movements such as the entrechat of classical ballet, and a sudden stop in a characteristic position with one arm held arched over the head (bien parado). The music is in moderate triple time, with accompaniment of the castanets and [characteristic] rhythms.”

Such is the popularity of “Ravel’s Bolero” that it is easy to forget that this composer has no proprietary rights to this Spanish dance, said to have been invented by Sebastian Cerezo about 1780. Among the other composers who have written a Bolero, one can cite Beethoven (two songs from WoO 158), Chopin (Op. 19), Auber (one each from the operas La Muette de Portici and Le Domino noir), Weber (incidental music to Preciosa), Gounod (a song), Tchaikovsky (one of the dances Clara watches in the Kingdom of Sweets in The Nutcracker), Britten (the fourth of the Soirées musicales, Op. 9) and George Crumb (the third song of the cycle Ancient Voices of Children). It has been used in films from the 1934 Bolero with Carole Lombard and George Raft to the Bo Derek vehicle 10. There is even a biography of the composer entitled Bolero (by Madeline Goss, published by Henry Holt in 1940). 

Ravel did not think that his Boléro would survive outside the world of the dance, but it quickly established itself as an orchestral tour de force, and has become not only his most famous work but one of the best-known compositions in the entire classical repertoire

— Program notes by Robert Markow


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