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.