In musical theater, composers hand their tunes over to an orchestrator who transforms them into the distinctive sounds we hear in the theater. In classical music, though, the composer is expected to handle both tasks. Not surprisingly, some are more adept than others.
The Oklahoma City Philharmonic's recent season closer offered a master class of sorts in the art of orchestration as practiced by Maurice Ravel and Ottorino Respighi. One French, the other Italian, these men were not only brilliant orchestrators, but skillful practitioners in the art of creating orchestral color.
Take “Alborada del Gracioso” for example, a work for solo piano that Ravel reconceived for orchestra. Scored for multiple percussionists and two harps, this work also made use of muted brass, string pizzicato and fluttertonguing.
The philharmonic deftly managed the work's enormous contrasts, from quiet murmurings to grand gestures that often happened in quick succession. The brass snarl in the concluding measures sounded marvelous.
From Respighi came the “Fountains of Rome,” the first work in his Roman trilogy. Respighi's dawn glistened with dew and glints of sun as the orchestra demonstrated its flair for creating the subtleties of musical atmosphere.
As the work's arc headed into midday, the soundscape enlarged considerably with swirling textures set against pedal tone effects in the horns and many evocative sounds enhanced by the colors of celeste and a single chime.
French composers from Debussy to Chabrier were particularly adept at capturing the allure of Spanish dances and rhythms. So too was Ravel, whose “Rapsodie Espagnole” closed out the first half. From a sinuous opening, the “Prelude a la Nuit” demonstrated how a simple four-note phrase could create magic through varied repetition.
The “Malaguena” was distinguished by a plaintive English horn solo while the closing “Feria,” with its use of syncopation and remarkable dynamic contrasts, showed an orchestra firing on all cylinders.
Audience favorite Jean-Yves Thibaudet returned for his fifth appearance with the orchestra, this time in Gershwin's “Concerto in F.” Composed a year after the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue,” this work showcased one of the composer's first attempts at orchestrating his own music.
Thibaudet took time to linger over a phrase here and there but never to the point of indulgence. Joel Levine and his soloist worked well together on the concerto's jazzy underpinnings but balances too often relegated Thibaudet to the background.
There was considerable gorgeous playing from the soloist in the middle movement, from pensive moments to some languorous passages that showed Ravel's influence on Gershwin. Syncopated figures framed the finale with Thibaudet's natural affinity for this music resulting in a satisfying musical experience.
Following a lengthy ovation, Thibaudet offered a complete change of pace with his encore, the poignant Op. 118 “Intermezzo in A Major” by Brahms. This was a beautifully rendered performance that enchanted the audience with its simplicity. It was a lovely way to cap off a rewarding concert and a fine season.
— Rick Rogers