Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summermusic with Mother Goose

The perfect antidote to heat frustration - indoor, air-conditioned concerts with great music and great music-making!

That's something Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012 can offer you - three concerts beginning this Friday evening at 8pm at Market Square Church, another on Sunday afternoon at 4pm at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, and then, returning to Market Square Church, a third concert beginning earlier than usual - at 6pm.

You can read more about the series here.

figuring out the logistics...
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, and Ya-Ting Chang, member of the Mendelssohn Trio and executive director of Market Square Concerts, will be performing two piano duets.

There was a time when the "piano duet" or "piano hour-hands" - two players at one piano (the old saying 'two on a bench' is now outmoded since the typical piano bench is no longer the traditional long bench but a plushly sculpted bucket seat) - was one of the major forms of home entertainment, back in the days before TV and in-house sound systems (much less such outmoded technology like CDs and radio) provided all the entertainment a family needed. Rather than sit around staring at each other waiting for television to be invented, people made their own music.

And composers like Franz Schubert cashed in on this vast "amateur audience" by providing them with all manner of pieces, whether serious or light-hearted in nature, original pieces or arrangements, technically challenging or suitable for beginners, whether music for dancing or to show off marriageable daughters to prospective husbands. More people would've heard Beethoven Symphonies in four-hand arrangements than would ever have been to an orchestra concert. More people played Schubert's popular "Marche militaire" than ever heard his most famous piece, the Unfinished Symphony, in his lifetime (actually, that's a trick question: nobody heard that during his life-time: it wasn't 'discovered' until 37 years after he died, but I digress...).

Last year, Stuart and Ya-Ting played one of the great piano duets in the repertoire – the Fantasy in F Minor by Franz Schubert – but this year, they’re offering two very different works: the brilliant, saucy and often naughty-sounding Sonata that Francis Poulenc wrote in 1918, full of post-war joie de vivre, and a work better known as an orchestral suite but originally written for piano duet, Ravel’s Ma mère l'oye, or “Mother Goose.”

In fact, “Mother Goose” was not only written for children, as you might expect a piece inspired by fairy tales, but in this case written specifically for children to perform. Friends of his had two gifted children and so he composed five short “pictures” for them. Mimi Godebski was 6 and her brother Jean was 7 when he began working on the piece, adding to it over a couple of years and completing it in 1910.

Ravel never seemed to have lost touch with his inner child. He was fascinated by clock-work toys (his father was an inventor and toy-maker) – one famous story has him picking up a wind-up bird and holding it out to a friend of his, saying “Listen! You can hear it’s heart beating!” When he’d get bored at friends’ parties, he often would sit on the nursery floor and tell the children stories. You can imagine Cyprian and Ida Godebski suggesting he turn some of those stories into music for their children.

When the work was given its first public performance, it was played by other children – but both under the age of 10. Immediately, colleagues saw its choreographic potential, so by the time he was done with it, he had orchestrated it (adding a prelude and some interludes) for use as a ballet. It then became a regular visitor to concert halls around the world.

Here’s a performance with pianists Martha Argerich and Akiko Ebi of the complete work:
= = = = =

= = = = =

It opens with a dreamy, slow dance, the “Pavane for the Sleeping Beauty.”

The winding patterns in the second piece (at 1:26) recall the paths through the dark and eerie woods where Tom Thumb wandered. Not to be confused with the American circus star - in French, he's Petite Poucet (a.k.a. Hop o’my Thumb), he's not the only child in fairy tales to get lost in the woods and leave bread-crumbs on the path to find his way back only to discover they’re all eaten by birds (appearing at 3:04).

The middle piece (at 4:19) is the exotic “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas,” speaking of clock-work toys, full of pentatonic music bringing to mind the Far East. The pagodas (at 5:14) come to life and dance for her. Musically, theorists talk a lot about Ravel’s use of “quartal harmonies” (chords built on fourths rather than thirds like traditional major and minor chords) but what he’s really doing is much simpler: you can get the same effect by just playing only the black keys of the piano! That’s the “sound” of the piece but the texture is more specifically inspired by the Javanese (or Balinese) Gamelan which Ravel may have heard in Paris – the first time one had performed there was in 1889 and it was an ear-opening experience for Claude Debussy. Listen to this clip of some authentic gamelan music.

This fairy tale, by the way, may not be familiar to American children brought up on Walt Disney. It’s based on a French tale that mixes a bit of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty & the Beast” – cursed by an evil fairy who’d not been invited to the party celebrating the princess’ birth, the little girl is turned into the “ugliest girl in the world” and whisked off to a magic kingdom ruled by a Green Serpent. Eventually she falls in love with the serpent-king and discovers he is, in fact (naturally), a handsome prince and her own beauty is also restored. “Laideronette” may sound like an exotic name for a princess, but it really means “Ugly Little Girl” in French, for those of you who have any little princesses in your house who might be looking for an alter-ego…

The fourth piece (at 7:26) picks up on this Beauty & the Beast story more specifically: it’s a very genteel conversation between the two with Belle answered (at 8:37) by the Beast. As you would expect, he is transformed (at 10:37) with an upward glissando, his low rumbling theme now played in the piano’s upper register. (It’s easier to hear in the orchestral version where the Beast is played by the contrabassoon before he is transformed into a handsome violinist.)

The final piece (at 11:54) is not based on any specific fairy tale: “no one seems to know where this fairy tale came from,” writers love to say, but it’s fairly obvious, if you can imagine Ravel sitting on the nursery floor telling children these tales, whether in words or in music, that he would bring all of the characters together in his own story as if saying good-bye after a party in the garden (proving Ravel had more imagination than many writers about music).

Even if he doesn’t identify who’s in this “Fairy Garden,” is there any more magical happy ending than this?

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment