“Ravel -A Portrait” Beyond the Score Review – Composer Who Heard in a Fourth Dimension

The collage screen added to the visual interest of the photographs and illustrations


One is always so amazed at the skills of both the regular Chicago Symphony Orchestra members and its soloists that somewhere in the back of your mind you are thinking that they really don’t need the written scores sitting before them on their music stands.  That premise proved to be true at the conclusion of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major” with solo pianist Denis Kozhukhin

We heard parts of Daphnis et Chloé

It was easy to have the momentary thought that the lights going out was part of the Beyond the Score programming.  A screen of several rectangles sewn together to create a collage – usually with one image projected but sometimes multiple - had been the visual focal point as the narrative painted a picture of Maurice Ravel in the first half of the program. As usual, the visuals helped to convey a portrait of the artist and his time and place.  But no - this blackout was a true power surge and outage and also one that should reassure the CSO management that their backup power systems function.

Ravel's impeccable suit, perfect coif, and penetrating stare were shown frequently juxtaposed to images related to his musical works

We turned to our neighbors, we smiled, we nervously asked if there was an electrical fire smell (note: it was diesel from the backup power generators), and we duly applauded when the loud buzz from the generator was tamed into relative silence.  

The program itself had been so rich that this moment of excitement was quite superfluous.  Each “Beyond the Score” portrait of a composer always has a different launch point, and in this case it was the idiosyncratic house filled with tchotchkes, many miniature and few tasteful, that the recluse Ravel built as his home about 15 miles from Versailles

Actress Jill Shellabarger read the voices of numerous people to help dramatize the production. The voices of 6 other actors were also recorded and used

With an oversized head and a tiny frame, he was likened to a jockey.  A dandy who paid much attention to his colognes and color shirts, he loved the ladies but kept much to himself with only a for-hire companion here and there. Gerard McBurney, who scripts the Beyond the Score series, said he threw prior plans to the winds when he saw Ravel’s remarkable house overflowing with objects, many miniature that fascinated Ravel the loner and collector, and that a visiting journalist of his time had likened to him—“small, neat and polished”. 

We learned that Ravel paid meticulous attention to his garden but hired others to do the actual gardening

More, we heard Ravel—both as composer and the master of orchestration – describe his work not as the genius that it was but more like a craft where he dabbles a note and then experiments in different directions to see what follows.  We learned how he not only knew all the birds but their sounds and how these as well as the blue notes of jazz influences found their way into his scores.   

(left to right) Conductor Ludovic Morlot, Creative Director Gerard McBurney, and actress Jill Shellabarger take bows


The post-intermission performance was equally fascinating as the very engaging narrative and visual poem about Ravel the man and his music that preceded it.  Right-handed pianist Denis Kozhukhin gave a masterful solo in Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major”.  

Here you see soloist Denis Kozhukhin holding his right thigh as he plays Ravel's "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major"


And at times the piano soloist, Denis Kozhukhin, grasped the piano with his right hand


With his right hand often grasping the piano’s edge as if to restrain itself from jumping into the keyboard, Kozhukhin moved back and forth on the piano seat as the music moved from bass rumbling at times to the most delicate high note melodies at others. Seeing what one hand could do was a continual cliffhanger, even before the lights went out just a bar or so short of the finale.

The orchestra then played Ravel’s “La valse”,  a sequence of waltzes that are continually reformed by different instruments after they seem to go through an eddy course to bubble up anew, ending in an almost frenetic waltz pace. 

Uplifted by the performance already, the post-performance discussion with McBurney and Conductor Ludovic Morlot ramped up our engagement with Ravel even a notch further, including a lively Q&A where McBurney’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Ravel was apparent.  We learned, for example, that the work for left hand was commissioned by the famed philosopher Wittgenstein’s pianist brother who had lost an arm in World War I and who had commissioned much of the extant repertoire for left hand piano.    We learned too that Ravel was not homosexual, as many of us were perhaps thinking, but rather “alarmed by women”, as McBurney put it. 

In this discussion, it was particularly gratifying to hear Morlot speak with appreciation of how McBurney’s presentation brought out a new dimension to Ravel, even for him.

Morlot conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

It was actually Ravel’s ability to bring out a “fourth dimension” in orchestrations, as commented on by composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, that made this such a memorable Beyond the Score.  Because he heard new sounds and harmonics we do too. 

Next year’s Beyond the Score series has been announced—Bernstein, Janáček, and Falla.  For tickets and information call the CSO box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the CSO Beyond the Score web pages.



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