Thursday, September 10, 2009

Learning to Listen to Ravel

During my formative student years, when I consumed everything voraciously without necessary savoring or digesting it, I cultivated a rather dismissive attitude towards Maurice Ravel. With my immature obsession with rank-ordering everything, he always seemed to fall short of someone else, whether it was George Gershwin's sense of jazz that he could never approach, or Claude Debussy for just about anything else, string quartet, orchestral color, or piano composition. Some of these feelings remain with me. I still have a hard time fixing my attention on the entirety of Ravel's string quartet, which I feel never really takes me anywhere. I have a similar problem with Gaspard de la Nuit: I cannot deny its virtuosity; but I have yet to grasp the "journey" in it that conducts me from beginning to end, whether in a single movement or over the entire suite.

In spite of all this baggage, I have discovered that, almost every time I set myself to write about a performance of Ravel on, my text always seems to take a positive direction. Most recently I encountered this last night at the San Francisco Symphony Opening Night Gala, which is about as far from an ideal listening experience as you are likely to get. Looking back on the whole affair this morning, I realized that the high point of the evening had been "La Valse." Perhaps this was just my way of restraining any tendency to praise Franz Liszt and Sergei Prokofiev (to say nothing of Richard Rodgers); but I think it also had to do with how dark this composition actually is and that it took a certain amount of courage for Michael Tilson Thomas to program something so sinister for such a festive occasion. I suspect it also had to do with my memory of how George Balanchine had realized this music through choreography as a Dance of Death and how, through the program notes by the late Michael Steinberg, I recognized that Balanchine's interpretation matched that of a composer who had been profoundly scarred by the First World War.

It may thus be that Ravel, like many other composers, is receiving much better performances today than he did 25 years ago, when intellectuals found it easy to dismiss the man and could never quite figure out how to talk about something like "La Valse." Perhaps Ravel's only sin in the eyes of those intellectuals was that, every now and then, he could latch on to a truly beautiful gesture; and any such invocation of beauty was dismissed as a betrayal of the cerebral. Thus, performers who now know how to respect Samuel Barber (about whom I wrote on this past Tuesday) may recognize that Ravel may be seen through the same lenses, which serve to enhance, rather than distort. I still encounter performances of Ravel that sell his music short, but they seem to occur less frequently these days. He has always had a significant place in the history of music, but performers seem to be acquiring a better sense of what that play is and how it may be presented through their performances.

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