With an ambitious and varied program of 20th century French music, music director Yaniv Dinur closed the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra season Saturday evening in the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center.
Dinur made unusual demands on his orchestra, and on his soloist: Roberto Plano, making his third appearance with the NBSO, performed both of Ravel’s piano concertos, in a unique programming gesture. Along with Guillaume Connesson’s shifty “Night-Club,” and Debussy’s orchestra classic “La Mer,” the concert offered a sweeping overview of French idioms from the past 100 years.
Ravel led the way. His two concertos, written about the same time in the early 1930s, present strikingly different portraits of the resourceful composer. His G major concerto wears its American influences proudly: jazzy accents, open seconds and fourths, all characterizing a sound that could easily be taken for Gershwin or Copland. From the first whip-crack percussion attack, listeners get transported to the “exotic” world of hot jazz, when American music stirred the European soul and influenced a whole host of artists in different genres.
Its three movements go from swinging to mellow, then back to swinging again. A cadenza in the first movement captures it all: Plano toyed with a lyric line in his left hand, while the right hand trilled for an impossibly long time. The curious middle movement—a lyric line, slow and thoughtful, taking its time to formulate itself until it finally settling on a comfortable rhythm—was beautifully drawn out.
The orchestra worked its way around Plano’s lead. A central section of that slow movement, introduced by the soloist with a shifting, bumpy idea, and then interrupted by a deeply satisfying flute/oboe/clarinet line, felt warm and comfortable, nicely organized by the conductor.
Ravel’s D major concerto is an entirely different animal. It was composed with unusual instructions: the eminent pianist Paul Wittgenstein had tragically lost his right arm during World War I, and commissioned a set of composers to write him works for one hand.
Ravel’s concerto is the only one of those to be performed with regularity, and has become well known—even more well received than his two-handed G major—for its dark character and inventive approach.
Its compositional genesis is not the only unusual characteristic. It begins in the double basses, with an enigmatic four-note gesture that sounds like they might be still tuning up. Then the soloist launches into a cadenza—normally out-of-place at the beginning of a movement. The orchestra responds, with its own separate line.
Finally, a scherzo-like section brings about some interplay. The dark character persists, but the concerto progresses in a purposeful, determined manner.
Plano played terrifically. Leaning his right hand on top of the piano, he navigated the many tricky passages—Ravel frequently creates a double notion for his single hand, having the pianist bounce up then down the keyboard, layering multiple ideas. Tempos are also layered, so that the orchestra plays in one rhythm and the soloist another. A striking contrabassoon solo (Daniela Beilman)—another unusual gesture— stood out for its clarity.
Dinur impressively worked Debussy’s “La Mer” without a score. Given his familiarity and confidence with the piece, one hoped for greater demands on the orchestra. The swirling atmospheres in “La Mer” call for soft softs and loud louds, and more variety in attacking phrases.
Still, the orchestra played alertly. On the whole, it was a smartly conceived program, satisfying and adventurous.
It was observed with pleasure, and some sadness, that both the Ravel G major concerto and Debussy’s “La Mer” were premiered by the Orchestre Lamoureux, in Paris.
The entire 2017-18 NBSO season was dedicated to the late Lillian Lamoureux, longtime president of the orchestra, who passed away in August. Lamoureux singlehandedly kept the NBSO alive during the years that the orchestra transitioned from an predominantly amateur ensemble into the fine professional group that they are today.
“La musique l’exprime,” in Lillian Lamoureux’s memory.
This was NBSO’s season finale. The NBSO’s summer fundraiser, Symphony Seaside Swing, takes place June 2 at the Kittansett Club in Marion. For tickets and information visit www.nbsymphony.org or call 508-999-6276.