By Ted AYALA
Limpidity, elegance, sensuality, and charm – virtues that characterize the very best of modern French musical style. Beguiling the ear, the listener, falling under the music’s spell, may find it easy to take its ravishing beauty for granted, not realizing the toil that forged this idiom.
In a 19th Century where France was overshadowed by German musical culture and relegated to provincial status, it was the composers born at the end of the century that finally broke the hold that Beethoven and Wagner held on the country‘s composers. Theirs was a movement that not only saw these composers turn to their great Baroque forebears, Couperin and Rameau, for inspiration. But also drawing upon Japanese, Russian, Javanese, Middle Eastern, and Arabic sources, these composers carved a national melos that stripped away what they saw as the heaviness and excessiveness of German music, syncretizing these styles into one uniquely French.
It was an audacious act at the time, something not lost on the critics and musicians of the older generations.
“We’ve nurtured a viper at our breast!” shrieked one critic when he heard the work that closed the first of four programs by Southwest Chamber Music devoted to French music, the “String Quartet” of Claude Debussy.
It was these aspects – beauty as well as audaciousness – that Southwest Chamber Music emphasized in the first concert of its summer season at the Huntington Library scheduled, fittingly enough, on Bastille Day.
When harpist Alison Bjorkedal strummed her instrument’s opening chords in Debussy’s “Danse sacrée et profane,” one could almost see the composer lifting the dark Teutonic veil that had stagnated his country’s music. The harmonies, shot through with sunlight, had about them the freshness of dawn air. Hazily beautiful, but also a bold statement of pride from the composer who would later unfailingly sign off his correspondence with “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”
The path that Debussy opened was further carved out by Maurice Ravel and André Jolivet, each of them enriching their national music with their own broad artistic worldviews.
Jolivet, a colleague and friend of Olivier Messiaen, peppered the luscious, Impressionist sensuality of Debussy with an unmistakably modern flavor. Brittle colors and textures informed by the work of Stravinsky glittered in the composer’s “Le chant de Linos” for flute, strings and harp.
Taking Debussy’s example, but subsuming and superseding it with his own rigorous classicism, exacting perfectionism, and native sense of beauty, was Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” for harp and strings. With its attractive proportions and airy, graceful lyricism, the work is one of the composer’s freshest utterances.
Augmenting the loveliness of these works was the playing of Bjorkedal. It was a master class in miniaturek, a demonstration of the wide range of tone that a world-class harpist can evoke from their instrument. The harp, despite its beauty of tone, can sound dull and monochrome in the hands of less talented players. Bjorkedal, however, had a broad spectrum of colors at her fingertips, employing them with great intelligence and sureness.
Joining her in the Jolivet and Ravel respectively were flautist Larry Kaplan and clarinetist Jim Foschia. With tone that was sweet and warm, but never shrill, both managed the workout that Jolivet and Ravel gave their instruments with zest, transcending the notes with expression of liquid purity.
The wayward harmonies of Debussy’s “String Quartet” – where the music itself at times seems to be awestruck with its own modulations and trajectory – were given a sensitive and incisive reading by musicians Lorenz Gamma (1st violin), Shalini Visayan (2nd violin), Jan Karlin (viola) and Peter Jacobson (cello).
“Pleasure is the only law,” Debussy famously exclaimed. True to his credo, the playing of the musicians was a quiet celebration of the work’s undercurrent of erotic luxuriousness and unbridled sense of musical exploration.
Southwest Chamber Music has that knack for devising programs that are both satisfying to the ear and edifying for the mind and soul, provoking deeper thought – sometimes even reexamination – of long held musical truths.
French music, with its emphasis on surface (but not superficial) beauty and poise, is something to cherish and delight in just as much as the philosophical profundities of Beethoven or Mahler. Indeed, the contemplation of beauty for the sake of beauty is something noble and profound in and of itself, the Southwest players seemed to say.
An impulse not only characteristically Gallic, but uniquely human too.