Last night at Heron Arts the democratically run orchestra One Found Sound concluded its 2016–2017 season that brought Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel together with Ottorino Respighi. Ever since the group was first formed, one of the delightful consequences of collective decision-making has been an imaginatively diverse repertoire that draws upon a wide assortment of tastes. Last night’s programming was particularly motivated by the presence of harpist Meredith Clark, most likely for the sake of preparing a performance of a piece that Ravel called simply “Introduction and Allegro.”
As the author of the program notes observed, this can fairly be called a “market-driven” composition. The motivation began with the efforts of the Pleyel company to promote its new chromatic harp, an instrument with separate ranks of strings for the “white keys” and the “black keys,” arrayed as two intersecting planes. The company commissioned Debussy in 1904 to compose music that would show off the virtues of this new instrument. Debussy wrote two complementing dances, “Danse sacrée” (sacred dance) and “Danse profane” (profane dance), both scored for harp and orchestra.
Meanwhile, the Érard company had a new chromatic harp of its own, the double-action pedal harp. All the strings were tuned to diatonic pitches, but there was a pedal for each of the scale degrees. Pressing the pedal halfway down raised those strings by a semitone, and pressing it all the way led to a whole tone increment. (This was the “double-action.”) Érard commissioned Ravel to promote its product over the competition from Pleyel. Ravel replied with a traditional coupling of a slow introduction to a principal allegro section. However, he chose to score this as chamber music, bringing the harp together with a string quartet augmented with flute and clarinet.
Over a century later we know which model the market preferred. Personally, I have yet to see a cross-strung chromatic harp anywhere other than behind the glass of a museum case. Debussy’s music is still performed, but harpists do not seem to have any trouble playing it on the double-action pedal instrument. Where the commissioned pieces are concerned, neither of them gets very much exposure.
At the time of the “competition,” relations between Debussy and Ravel were strained. Ravel was younger by about a dozen years; and he kept company with Les Apaches (the hooligans), creative artists in a variety of different media all of whom identified as outcasts. Debussy, on the other hand, had a more secure reputation, secure enough that he could champion young upstarts such as Igor Stravinsky. The “Introduction and Allegro” was composed in the year after Ravel had written his only string quartet; and both pieces show his imaginative interest in working with sonority with the same attention devoted to thematic content.
One result is that watching this harp-based septet can be far more informative than listening to a recording. One is more aware of the imaginative ways in which Ravel is constantly combining and recombining his instrumental voices. While he lived up to Érard’s expectations in displaying the rich capabilities of their instrument, particularly with some striking cadenzas, it is clear that his real heart was in the many different ways in which all seven sonorities could be contrasted, combined, and blended. The result puts not only the harp in a favorable light but also Ravel himself.
Last night Clark was joined by a string quartet of violinists Emily Botel and Abigail Shiman, violist Erica Zappia, and cellist James Jaffe, along with Sasha Launer on flute and Jeannie Psomas on clarinet. It did not take much attention to appreciate the rich network of communication among all seven of these players, all of whom could not have been better prepared each time Ravel explored yet another way to combine those instruments. The result was delightfully fresh and alive, not to mention as remote from market-driven thinking as one could hope to achieve.
Clark’s visit was further acknowledged by selecting the other two compositions for the inclusion of the harp in their respective scoring. The Debussy selection, which concluded the program, was actually written for four hands on a single piano keyboard. This was his four-movement “Petite Suite,” which he composed in 1889. However, one of Debussy’s protégés, Henri Büsser asked permission to transcribe the score for small orchestra; and Debussy was delighted with the results.
That delight may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that Büsser’s approach to instrumentation was his own with almost no suggestion at all that he might have been motivated by Debussy’s own orchestral scoring. Nevertheless, while the ensemble was small, it was far more diverse than the usual string-dominated chamber orchestra. In addition to the harp, scoring requires pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, as well as two percussionists, one on timpani and the other for cymbals, triangle, and tambourine.
For all these resources, however, there was a delightful transparency to One Found Sound’s approach to this score. Writing as one who has played the original four-hand version, I could appreciate Büsser’s sensitivity to how Debussy chose to present his thematic material. However, at the same time I could enjoy how that material assumed new identities through Büsser’s choices of instruments.
Transcription was also responsible for the Respighi selection, the first of the three suites called Ancient Airs and Dances. These were transcriptions of sixteenth century lute music. About half of the source material was anonymous; but the composers acknowledged by Respighi were both from the very late sixteenth century, Simone Molinaro and Vincenzo Galilei (better known as Galileo’s father). The choice of instruments is almost identical to Büsser’s (the piece was composed about ten years after Büsser had transcribed Debussy’s suite); but it also includes a harpsichord. As might be guessed, this posed some problems of balance. However, Derek Tam knew just how to be audible and even enjoyed about four measures of solo work.
Respighi’s reworking of “ancient music” enjoyed great popularity during the middle of the twentieth century. Agnes de Mille drew upon all three of his suites for her ballet “Three Virgins and a Devil.” Around 1960 classical music radio stations were positively reveling in the stuff for both Respighi’s imaginative instrument selections and his romping through modal chord progressions. However, with the rise of “historically-informed” performance, Respighi quickly fell out of fashion and is now only beginning to recover.
One Found Sound did not seem particularly phased by the ups and downs of Respighi’s past. They took a straightforward it-is-what-it-is approach to the music, demonstrating that there is much to enjoy if the music is taken on its own terms. After all One Found Sound is ultimately about the pleasure of making music in that “democratic” setting to which the group aspires. The resources of Respighi’s suites definitely lend themselves to that approach, meaning that, once again, One Found Sound could offer repertoire that delights as much as it informs.