Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
November 26, 2021, 8:00 PM
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3, Scottish
Roderick Cox, conductor
Conrad Tao, piano
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) was composed and first performed in Paris in 1894, inspired by a poem of Stéphane Mallarmé that describes the amorous adventures of a mythological creature: a half-human/half-goat faun.
Neither a prelude nor a tone poem, as it has been erroneously described, but a stand-alone work originally intended to be quite a bit longer than in its present form, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun signaled in this performance the impressive Cincinnati debut of conductor Roderick Cox.
Mallarmé at first was discontent with a poem of his being turned into a musical composition, but upon hearing it, he wrote to Debussy expressing his enthusiastic approval. Once Debussy had completed this succinct and evocative composition he felt that it contained all the music it needed. At first the work proved too modern for the ears of the recalcitrant 1894 Paris public, although eventually it became a keystone of 20th century music.
Randolph Bowman flawlessly played the famous flute solo that begins the work and sets the mood for what’s to follow, gradually sharing the moment with Gillian Benet Sella’s harp, Dwight Parry’s oboe, and Christopher Pell’s clarinet.
Brief in length like the Debussy work that preceded it by almost four decades, Ravel’s 1932 Piano Concerto in G Major is, in the words of its composer “…a genuine concerto… a brilliant work… without seeking to show profundity…” Ravel chose to incorporate into his Piano Concerto in G Major a handful of jazzy instrumental tricks of the trade, among them wah-wah effects shared by several of the brass players.
In addition to these sometimes sardonic, sometimes just plain funny moments, several Basque folk songs from the composer’s mother’s birthplace give the work a lyrical yet earthy tone that in the second movement of this performance engaged the extraordinary Christopher Philpotts on English horn with Conrad Tao at the piano in a haunting dialogue.
In point of fact, profundity or not, Ravel’s G major concerto is indeed a genuine and brilliant creation, from its initial whip crack to its elegiac second movement, to its riotous finale – all three movements a pianistic minefield to most keyboard artists, though not to the chameleonic Conrad Tao who took on Ravel’s work and brought out with sheer audacity all of its aspects: the lyrical, the zany, the mind-bending technical hurdles in a performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Tao returned for several bows, the last one microphone in hand. Once settled down he shared with the audience the sad news of the passing of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, himself an admirer of Maurice Ravel. Tao then movingly played Sunday, from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George
Amazingly it took Ravel over twenty-five years to finally put pen to paper and bring this work from idea to life on a concert stage. It took Mendelssohn less than Ravel, but still over twelve years to finish his Symphony No. 3 due to the composer’s other commitments. Once he had finished this composition in 1842, he revealed to those close to him as the source of his inspiration a visit to the roofless, ruined, decaying chapel of Holyrood Palace on a trip to Scotland which also inspired the composer’s Hebrides Overture.
On listening to this music there is something particularly Scottish about it, especially in the second movement that uses the dotted rhythms of a dance. But beyond the musical characteristics of the work, there are the broadly Romantic, stormy, alternatively lyrical and dramatic emotions which inspired it. It would not be far-fetched to describe them as quintessentially Scottish characteristics of the inhabitants of the northernmost regions of the British Isles.
In his auspicious debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Roderick Cox arrived largely unknown to a Cincinnati audience still in the midst of pandemic restrictions. Within a few moments after the start of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun it was clear to many of us that we were in the presence of a major talent: a young but fully matured maestro with the lightness of touch to bring out the delicacy and the myriad colors of the Debussy work.
As he moved into the ever changing Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major we became even more impressed by the precision with which Cox balanced attention to the soloist and keeping a firm hand leading the orchestra through the now percussive, now rhapsodic score.
In the second half of the program Cox mastered the subtle balance in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, Scottish, a work in which the tempestuous eventually gives way to a calming peace that was then interrupted by a rapturous ovation accorded the maestro.
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