A Russian and two Frenchmen walk into a bar… well, if I were quicker in wit, I'd add a joke to that but seeing as how my senses are still dulled with the extra helpings of Christmas gustatory delights, I'll let your imagination do the walking while mine takes a nap in front of the television (it's a It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World marathon!). "Piano Panache" is the name of the next philharmonic concert (and yes, it sent me scrambling for an exact definition of "panache", and no, it doesn't involve rodents or lumberjacks) and it involves the music of Ravel and Saint-Saens (pronounced suh-sauns), two French guys, and Shostakovich (a self-professing Russian). And since the last shall be first, lets start with Shostakovich, shall we?
Dimitri Shostakovich was born in 1906 and spent his entire life within the USSR. Many consider him the best composer the Soviet Union ever produced. Should I meet these people in a dark ally with my trusty friend Crowbar, we shall proceed to convince them that Prokofiev is the best composer from the Soviet Union. He wrote his first symphony at age eighteen, around the time of the revolution. The music was buoyant, brash, and defiant with dissonant harmony, everything that the party leaders felt embodied the revolution. Years later, when the officials wanted music that upheld the status quo, Shosty got in a lot of trouble for writing this same kind of brash, defiant music. Despite the strict Soviet system under which he worked, Dimitri was usually able to please the officials without sacrificing his art. He music is consistently pleasing, accessible without rehashing old ideas, progressive without being avant-garde or atonal. His tenth symphony, which many consider (who are these people who "consider" all the time?) to be his best, perfectly combines his eclectic style of high-spirited humor, introspective meditation, and declamatory grandeur (got that description off the back of a box of cereal!). Performed for the first time just after the death of Stalin, the bleak power of the first three movements could be considered (there they go again!) a commentary on the dark age that had just passed. Indeed, Shostakovich concludes the symphony in a lighter mood, suggesting that better things were to come. More on Shostakovich!
I won't go too much into the life history of Ravel this time except to say that he was short, was an ambulance driver in WWI, and wrote the music used in the movie 10. Of course, I have to add that he was a master of orchestration and that he died in 1937 after an unsuccessful attempt at brain surgery (he was the patient, not the surgeon, although from the outcome, things might have been better for him if he had had a different surgeon). The piece this weekend by Ravel is called Alborado del Gracioso and is based on a Spanish theme. A bit more on Ravel
And now for the piece that is putting the "panache" in the piano, which is less painful than it sounds. The second piano concerto by French composer Camille Saint-Saens. Now before you Indiana ruffians start shouting out "Sissy Boy" and "Hey Camille, where are your pantaloons?" please allow me to interject that you would probably be justified. A lot of composers start out life as freakish children but this guy was the worst of the lot. He was reading at age two, started composing shortly after his third birthday, and was reading Latin by the time he was seven. For his formal debut as a concert pianist (at the ripe old age of ten), he offered to play any of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas… from memory. So yeah, he might have gotten beat up once or twice if France was full of hooligans. So what happened to this huge potential? Why isn't his name up there with Bach and Beethoven? It may be a matter of too much talent. Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, technique and melody came so easily to Saint-Saens that it nearly extinguished the spark of originality. He never had to toil and strain to reach the sound he wanted, and thus he never grew creatively. This is not to say that his music is of less worth than a half-eaten mocha and limburger on lightly toasted rye. After all, he did compose Danse Macabre, which I have declared under oath as being my favorite tone poem about graveyard hootenannies. Much of Camilles music is lucid, elegant and perfectly proportioned. It is what one might expect of Mozart if he lived during the Romantic period. And since I've brought up the name of Mozart twice, well, three times by now, I should also note that Saint-Saens and Mendelssohn were instrumental in restoring the music of Mozart to the minds of the public, where it has remained firmly entrenched like a mashed prune danish in shag carpet. But back to Saint-Saens. While his music was clean and beautiful, he was not. He was short, beak-nosed, and spoke in a quick lisping foghorn of a voice. Later in life, he always wore a black bowler hat and a closely trimmed beard (well, he grew the beard), giving him the appearance of a French Burl Ives.
This second piano concerto is the most popular of the five that he wrote, although it was not an immediate success. Audiences of the day (and night) were put off by the extreme contrasts in mood. The piece begins with an extended piano improvisation in the manner of Bach, makes a U-turn into a flashing, light-footed jaunt full of those clever Saint-Saens touches that we've all come to know and love, and then he slams his foot to the floor with a whirling finale as fevered and manic as any ever written. Like much of his music, it is pleasant on the ear and murder on the fingers.
In conclusion (original ending, eh?), if you like French composers or like the music of Mozart, this is one performance not to miss! Dittos if you like sorrowful Russian composers. If you like mocha and limburger on lightly toasted rye, take pity on the rest of us and stay home!
Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman