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The Winston-Salem Symphony and Chorale joined forces in a “Concert for Lovers” which paired Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”) with the complete ballet Daphnis et Chloé, a rather long and dull marriage whose moments of excitement came late, saving the day at the lovely Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.
The Hanson symphony is familiar to many from its performances by non-professional orchestras and its inclusion in music camps and festivals. Although it makes great demands on the horn section (kudos to Robert Campbell for his many fine horn solos), it is not a difficult work, either to play or to hear. Thickly orchestrated with many doublings, in the manner of Bruckner, harmonically the music never seems to resolve completely, but rambles on in the manner of one whose points are often valid but not necessarily in the order of importance, although plausible in an attractive way to some, so it seems, (and not unlike this sentence itself).
The first two movements resemble each other in brooding mood as well as in tempo and form the bulk of the Symphony while the third (of three) provides some welcome contrast with its similarity to more recent “Star Wars” type of film music. One eye-opening surprise occurred near the end of the whole work when a sextet of strings, all solos, played a charming and unencumbered moment, setting itself apart from the musical slurry of its surrounding.
If the tenor of the Hanson is dark (and its mood Flemish), that of Maurice Ravel’s choreographic symphony, Daphnis et Chloé, is transparent and its mood is Mediterranean. In its original version, as a ballet commissioned by Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, it is one of Ravel’s longest scores and at about an hour, is rarely performed in its entirety. I have to thank Maestro Moody and his penchant for the grandiose for this, my first hearing.
Ravel, realizing that length and repetitiveness of some parts were necessary only for dancers’ entrances and scrims and curtain changes, culled two suites from the ballet, the very popular Second Suite which is literally the last 18 minutes of the ballet, without changes; and the less popular First Suite, which incorporates fragments of the first and second parts of the ballet.
Not in either suite, but original to the ballet is the lengthy wordless chorus which starts Part II of the ballet. Magnificently sung a capella by the W-S Symphony Chorale, it was a dissonant and difficult contrapuntal moment which appeared to end precisely on pitch and in tune when the orchestra entered.
Another segment missed when only the Suites are played is the comic derision and orchestral laughter when Dorcon, the cowherd, tries to outshine Daphnis, the goatherd, in a dance contest whose prize is a kiss from shepherdess Chloé. Needless to say, Daphnis is the winner and the orchestra again derides Dorcon. Another mysterious musical moment occurs when the three statues of nymphs and Pan come to life.
Storms have always fascinated composers and the storms of Ravel rival the best – with the wind machine (a silk sheath draped over a hand-cranked drum or basket) stage right and the thunder (tympani) coming from stage left. The gigantic orchestra includes winds by fours, two harps, and a bevy of percussionists – everything but saxophones and piano! And no one (perhaps excepting Richard Strauss and Nicolai Rimski-Korsakov) can orchestrate as well as Ravel. [W-S Symphony-goers can hear his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at a Exhibition in May - http://cvnc.org/eventDetail.cfm?eventId=7256.]
The best playing coincided with the best music, starting with the sunrise sequence (could not the flutes and clarinets balance each other?) Principal flute, Kathryn Levy, played the “Pantomime of Pan Seducing Syrinx” beautifully, yet within the rhythmic framework of the slow Habañera that Ravel and the choreography require.
The closing Bacchanal is notoriously difficult with chromatic scales, mixed meters and a driving theme, all played at break-neck speed, phrases getting shorter and shorter until a final 7-bar vibrating chord ends it all! Maestro Moody needed only a sketched beat and an occasional flick of the whip to lead the writhing mass of musicians to the inexorable climax.