Sensuous Ravel

Program Notes

On the second half of today’s concert, we’ll bask in two of the most overtly voluptuous pieces in the orchestral canon: Flos campi by Vaughan Williams and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Before intermission, the MSO’s principal clarinetist Todd Levy is the soloist in Copland’s ever-popular clarinet concerto. Augusta Read Thomas’s evocative Radiant Circles opens the program.


Radiant Circles

Augusta Read Thomas
(Born 24 April 1964; Glen Cove, New York)

Composed: 2010

First performance: 10 March 2011; New Haven, Connecticut

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bassoon, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes

Grammy-winning composer Augusta Read Thomas is a designated University Professor (one of only seven) at the University of Chicago. Previous teaching posts include Eastman, Northwestern, and Tanglewood. Thomas states, “Teaching is a natural extension of my creative process and of my enthusiasm for the music of others.” During her tenure as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1997-2006), that venerable ensemble premiered nine commissioned works. Presently, she is working in the same capacity with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra (Francesco Lecce-Chong, music director).

Radiant Circles (2010) was written for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and its conductor William Boughton during her time as their composer-in-residence. Its title follows Thomas’s practice of choosing names that are poetic and suggestive (e.g., Astral Canticle, Earth Echoes, Galaxy Dances, Orbital Beacons), rather than explanatory.

Though only about ten minutes in duration, Radiant Circles reveals itself slowly as spacious chords are formed one note at a time, building either from the sky down or from the earth upward. Before long, brass fanfares are heard, and the timpanist adds thunderous exclamations. And at the end, upon building to one final resplendent chord, the music is left to vibrate into the waiting silence.

Recommended recording: Donald Schleicher, University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra (Nimbus Alliance)


Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano

Aaron Copland
(Born 14 November 1900; Brooklyn, New York; Died 2 December 1990; Tarrytown, New York)

Composed: 1948

Premiere: 6 November 1950; New York, New York

Last MSO performance: September 2015; Edo de Waart, conductor; Todd Levy, clarinet

Instrumentation: harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Aaron Copland—that “Dean of American Composers”—hardly needs introduction. Among other works, his Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Lincoln Portrait, El Salón México, and Symphony No. 3 are perennial favorites of concertgoers everywhere.

The Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by the great jazz clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. Copland began work on the piece during a 1947 stay in Rio de Janeiro, completing it the following year. Rather than accompany the solo instrument with a jazz band—as Stravinsky had done in his 1945 Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman—Copland chose an orchestra of strings, along with harp and piano. Goodman premiered the work on 6 November 1950, on an NBC radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner.

The concerto is cast in an unusual form: two movements, linked by a clarinet cadenza. The slow first movement is in A-B-A form, warmly elegiac and full of bittersweet lyricism. The cadenza that follows gives the soloist ample opportunity for display, but also introduces the jazzy Latin American themes that follow. The rondo-like second movement includes a Brazilian popular tune alongside many echoes of jazz. The piece ends with a fairly elaborate coda that finishes off with a glissando—or “smear” in jazz parlance.

Recommended Recording: Stanley Drucker; Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)


Flos campi

Ralph Vaughan Williams
(Born 12 October 1872; Down Ampney, England; Died 26 August 1958; London, England)

Composed: completed 1925

First performance: 10 October 1925; London, England

Last MSO performance: MSO Classics Series premiere

Instrumentation: flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tabor), harp, celeste, strings, chorus

Approximate duration: 17 minutes

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the most important English composer of his generation—that between Elgar and Britten—and a key figure in the revival of English music. His voluminous compositional output includes nine symphonies and other orchestral pieces, operas, songs, choral music, film and theatre music, and chamber music, as well as Christmas carols and hymn tunes. Among his best-known works are The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Fantasia on “Greensleeves, and the Symphony No. 1 (“A Sea Symphony”).

Scored for solo viola, wordless chorus, and small orchestra, Flos campi (Flower of the Fields) is one of the most unusual pieces in Vaughan Williams’s catalogue. Completed in 1925, the same year that saw the composition of his oratorio Sancta civitas (The Holy City), its very title can be misleading: It has nothing to do with “buttercups and daisies,” as the composer once irritably explained. Rather, the reference is to the “Rose of Sharon”—as in, “I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley.”

Taking verses from The Song of Solomon as his inspiration, Vaughan Williams created a free-flowing rhapsodic work that is exotic, evocative, and even erotic. The harmonic language and colorful instrumentation owe something to his teacher Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). It’s seemingly a subtle irony that RVW chose to use human voices instrumentally and to cast the viola—one of his favorite instruments—as the singer. He divided the piece into six sections, each headed by a quotation from the Latin Vulgate. Here are the English translations of those verses, along with a brief description of the music:

1.As the lily among the thorns, so is my love among the daughters... Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.

A bitonal duet for oboe and viola opens the work, then we hear a lush orchestral passage before the choir’s ardent first entry. Herbert Howells called this section a “rhapsodic prelude.”

2. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

The soloist plays a long-breathed melody that is taken up by the choral voices in unison. Note the alluring use of harp and celesta.

3. I sought him whom my soul loveth, but found him not... “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him that I am sick of love.”... “Whither is my beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? Whither is my beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee.”

The forlorn viola dialogues with the women’s voices.

4. Behold his bed [palanquin], which is Solomon’s, three score valiant men are about it... They all hold swords, being expert in war.

A “moderato alla marcia,” presumably depicting the masculine Beloved. Composer Phillip Cooke likened this dance to “something like a 1930s film score of a medieval banquet.” 

5. Return, return, O Shulamite. Return, return, that we may look upon thee... How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O Prince’s daughter.

The modal polyphony of the second section returns, with a side drum beating the earlier dance rhythm.

6. Set me as a seal upon thy heart.

“Diatonic fulfillment of longing” (Herbert Howells). Toward the end, there’s a restatement of the oboe/viola duet, but the soloist has the last word, and the final dissonant chord remains unresolved.

Recommended recording: Cecil Aronowitz; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; Sir David Willcocks, Jacques Orchestra (EMI Classics)


Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2

Maurice Ravel
(Born 7 March 1875; Ciboure, France; Died 28 December 1937; Paris, France)

Composed: 1909-12

First performance: 8 June 1912; Paris, France (complete ballet); 30 April 1914; Paris, France (Suite No. 2)

Last MSO performance: January 2005; Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor; Milwaukee Symphony Chorus

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), alto flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, tambourine, snare drum, glockenspiel, cymbals, castanets, bass drum, 2 harps, celeste, strings, chorus

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Maurice Ravel penned the music for Daphnis et Chloé at the behest of the venerable impresario of the Ballet Russe, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). Premiered in Paris in 1912, it’s a compelling study in contrast to two other ballets written for Diaghilev about the same time—Stravinsky's The Firebird (1910) and his riot-inducing The Rite of Spring (1913).

Ravel called the Suite No. 2 (1914) his most important score. Indeed, the work of one of the greatest orchestrators of all time is on full display here, rife with “extremely subtle gradations of timbre and shading” (Robert P. Morgan). Here are just few things to listen for. In its unforgettable opening bars, the sun rises and bathes the music in warmth and light; a piccolo and three solo violins invoke awakening birds. Later, as Daphnis (portraying Pan) constructs a flute, we hear one of the most beautiful solos ever written for that instrument. In the “Danse générale” that concludes the work, Ravel ratchets up the excitement by setting the music in 5/4 meter, with the accent on beat two. For the complete ballet, Ravel uses a wordless chorus to stunning coloristic effect. This element is usually excluded in performances of Suite No. 2, but we are fortunate to hear it in this weekend’s concerts.

Choreographer Michel Fokine’s (1880-1942) shepherd-boy-meets-shepherd-girl story is set in ancient Greece. The score of Suite No. 2 includes a helpful synopsis, translated by Philip Hale as follows:

No sound but the murmur of rivulets fed by the dew that trickles from the rocks. Daphnis lies stretched before the grotto of the nymphs. Little by little the day dawns. The songs of birds are heard... Herdsmen enter... They find Daphnis and awaken him. In anguish he looks about for Chloé. She at last appears encircled by shepherdesses. The two rush into each other’s arms. Daphnis observes Chloé’s crown. His dream was a prophetic vision; the intervention of Pan is manifest. The old shepherd Lammon explains that Pan saved Chloé, in remembrance of the nymph Syrinx, whom the god loved.

Daphnis and Chloé mime the story of Pan and Syrinx, Chloe impersonates the young nymph wandering over the meadow. Daphnis, as Pan, appears and declares his love for her. The nymph pushes him away; the god becomes more insistent. She disappears among the reeds. In desperation he plucks some stalks, fashions a flute, and on it plays a melancholy tune. Chloé comes out and by her dance imitates the accents of the flute.

The dance grows more and more animated. In mad whirlings, Chloé falls into the arms of Daphnis. Before the altar of the nymphs he swears his fidelity. Young girls enter; they are dressed as bacchantes and shake their tambourines... a group of young men comes onstage. Joyous tumult.

Recommended recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Columbia Odyssey)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.