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The NC Symphony concert, given in Meymandi Hall on Friday, January 28, was a tribute to the long and fruitful alliance of two great countries. The first half included America's inventive and innovative Charles Ives (1874-1954) and France's brilliant exponent of expressionism in music, born one year later, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). After intermission, we heard music by a Frenchman in America, so-to-speak – Darius Milhaud's La Création du monde – and by an American in France, so-to-speak – George Gershwin's An American in Paris.
Listening to Ives' Third Symphony, "The Camp Meeting," is sort of like playing "I can name that tune in [five] notes." For one who grew up in a mainstream American Protestant church and with the "Twice 55" song book a text in school, this symphony was like a nostalgic trip back in time, which undoubtedly was Ives' intent. With a sense of reverence and humor and musical inventiveness that still astounds a hundred years after its introduction, Ives, the insurance executive who introduced personal policies in the industry, brings us a symphony that for its time was avant-garde. He employed techniques such as polytonality, simultaneous rhythms, quarter tones, cluster harmonies, and others, not so much as a means of impressing anyone but simply for the joy of doing it – and because he heard things that way in the inner ear of his imagination. He has left us a body of work that is authentic in its realization, fresh in its inspiration, and evocative of an American experience that should not be forgotten. The performance, with a whimsical introduction by guest conductor William Eddins, was gentle and brash, wistful and insistent, and a great pleasure to hear.
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (his name is as much fun to pronounce as it to look at) joined the NCS and Eddins in a rousing (well, yes it was, hackneyed though the word is) performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Composed nearly 30 years after the Ives' Symphony, Ravel's work includes influences of Gershwin and American jazz, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, not so much as a model, but in its spirit, characterized by daring playfulness and impertinence. The first movement was dazzling, with charming and bright Basque melodies. Thibaudet was in his element, clearly in full command of every aspect of his pianistic art – even though the wheels of the piano cradle apparently were not locked and the keyboard had a tendency to roll away from him. Before the start of the second movement, Eddins performed the necessary assist and made sure the wheels were locked. The second movement begins with an extended piano solo, lyrical and graceful, developing with the entrance of the orchestra into a lovely and ethereal experience. The finale, a whirling showpiece, found both soloist and orchestra exuberant and breathlessly "rocking" right up to the abrupt ending.
La Création du monde ("The Creation of the World") is the experience of American jazz as seen through the eyes of a French composer who could fairly be said, I think, to have had some artistic kinship to Ives. Milhaud was fascinated with jazz, and during a visit to America in 1922 he frequented nightclubs in Harlem – before snobs and aesthetes discovered them. La Création du monde is a ballet embodying the fruits of Milhaud's enthusiasm. It employs an instrumental ensemble including saxophone and other traditional jazz instruments along with percussion, a few strings, and woodwinds, all used in Milhaud's own jazz idiom. While its premiere in 1923, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, did not create quite the furor that Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring had ten years earlier, the critics were not kind to Milhaud. However, within ten years, some of these same critics were discussing the philosophy of jazz and proclaiming La Création the best of Milhaud's works. Eddins and the NCS demonstrated their versatility and musical mastery in a convincing manner.
The concert finale ranged from this side of the Atlantic to the other. Gershwin's An American in Paris was mostly evocative, for this listener, of the ingenious Vincente Minnelli cinematic encapsulation seen on its first run in 1951: the fluidity of the young Gene Kelly, the fresh beauty of Leslie Caron, and the unforgettable charm of a simple love story. The music, composed and premiered more than 20 years earlier, was already an icon of American classical/jazz and of American's tryst with the City of Love. Here, the NCS was outfitted with a complete orchestral complement of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, and they brought to life all the descriptive joy, playfulness, and the triumph of amore that Gershwin packed into this American masterpiece.
As conductor, Eddins was impressive. He is the Resident Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor of major orchestras throughout the world. With the exception of the Ives Symphony, he led the entire concert without the benefit of scores in front of him. He confidently knew where the music was going and guided the musicians in achieving satisfying performances. A bit of a showman, his gestures were occasionally almost flamboyant, and he liked to demonstrate the dance elements in the music by dancing on the podium – he was a real audience pleaser for many.
Finally, a word of appreciation for the excellent program notes in the NCS concert magazine. They not only provide thorough background to enhance the enjoyment of the music but are also a tempting source of information for the concert reviewer. The debt is here acknowledged. We indeed have a Symphony with a capital S in North Carolina, and this program was another evening of great entertainment. By the way, ticket sales were so good we had to sit in one of the choir lofts beside the stage, looking down on the keyboard as Thibaudet performed and watching the facial expressions and intricate conducting gestures of Eddins. It was unique and wonderful perspective for a grand concert. Vive la France, long live America, and may their music ever meet in the concert hall and charm our lives.