San Francisco Symphony plays Debussy & Ravel with Tortelier & Graham

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings ‘Shéhérazade’ with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the San Francisco Symphony – Photo © Dario Acosta

The San Francisco Symphony celebrates the musical heritage of France this week, paying homage to two of the country’s finest 20th century composers – Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In a program led by French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, the guest soloist is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham performing Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade, and the program also features Debussy’s Sarabande from Pour le Piano, Danse from his Tarantelle styrienne, and a concert version of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

Chief Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Emeritus of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier is also a guest conductor for some of the world’s finest orchestras. He has held the position of Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Ulster Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and is currently Principal Guest Conductor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Maestro Tortelier’s 2014 interpretation of the Sibelius Symphony No 5 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was described by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as “magnificently conceived and performed”, and his conducting style as “magnificent to watch” by KDHX Radio, as he “uses his very expressive hands to shape phrases”.

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier – photo courtesy IMG Artists

Susan Graham, celebrated as one of the leading exponents of French vocal music, is also a recipient of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.  She is well loved in France, due – no doubt – to what the Washington Classical Review describes as “her excellent French pronunciation and her understanding of that delicate style”. Equally popular here in the United States, Ms Graham is hailed by the New York Times as “an artist to treasure”, with what the Cleveland Plain Dealer refers to as her “ ….. lustrous voice that abounds in expressive colors…”.

Having risen to stardom in a relatively short time-frame, Susan Graham has a wide repertoire, her operatic roles ranging from early works such as Monteverdi’s Poppea to the more contemporary role of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking – a part written for her by Jake Heggie. Her recital roles reflect an equally impressive range of composers, and she was the recipient of a Grammy Award for her collection of songs by Charles Ives.

The first two works on this week’s program were both written for the piano by Debussy, and both subsequently orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The Sarabande s the second of three movements in Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano, written in 1901 and premiered the following year. Playing the Sarabande, according to pianist Shirley Gruenhut, writing on the Grand Piano Passion website, “is like losing yourself in a gorgeous Impressionist painting ….”.

Debussy’s Danse was originally entitled Tarantelle styrienne, a work written in 1890 following the composer’s return from a two-year stay at the Villa Medici in Italy, where he’d been studying as part of his 1883 Prix de Rome award. It’s a delightful, lyrical little piece, as would be expected from its title – the Austrian version of the Italian dance.

Ravel orchestrated both of these works by Debussy in 1922, and they were given their premiere in Paris in 1923 by the Orchestre Lamoureux, conducted by Paul Paray.

Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade is a musical interpretation of three poems by a Parisian writer who went by the name of Tristan Klingsor – a member of the coterie of artists, musicians and writers with whom Ravel associated.

These poems are based on some of the legendary folk tales which became known as The Thousand and One Nights, the origins of which are not really known, but are thought to have been gathered from India, Persia, the Middle East and the Levant. As is well known, Shéhérazade uses this seemingly endless series of stories – which include tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin – to save her life, since her Indian husband, having been betrayed by his first wife, has a reputation for killing each of his wives after their wedding night. Shéhérazade skillfully manages to leave the ending of each tale up in the air so that her husband is driven by curiosity to spare her life for just another day.

The concert ends with Yan Pascal Tortelier’s concert version arrangement of Ravel’s Choreographic Symphony in Three Parts – Daphnis et Chloé. A work written for the largest orchestra required for any of Ravel’s works, it was commissioned in 1909 by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. The scenario was devised by Michel Fokine, a classically trained dancer and choreographer for Diaghilev’s company, and adapted from a pastoral romance by the Greek writer, Longus, telling of the love between a goatherd, Daphnis, and a shepherdess, Chloé.

Léon Bakst’s original design for the Ballets Russes production of ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The three suites of this work each portray a segment of the story – the courtship of Daphnis and Chloé, her abduction and ultimate escape from a band of pirates, and the morning after a night of terror, in which the young lovers give thanks to the god Pan whose intervention ensured Chloé’s safe return.

Yan Pascal Tortelier leads the San Francisco Symphony and guest artist Susan Graham in a program of works by Debussy and Ravel at Davies Symphony Hall from April 19th to 21st. For more information, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Read more about the works on the program:

Debussy – Sarabande and Danse

Ravel – Shéhérazade

Ravel – Daphnis et Chl

Information sourced from artists’ websites:
Yan Pascal Tortelier
Susan Graham

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