New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Ravel & Saint-Saëns

L’enfant et les sortilèges
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op.78 (Organ)

Child – Suzanne Mentzer
Fire/Nightingale/Princess – Patrizia Ciofi
Shepherdess/Bat/Owl/Bergère Chair – Jessica Jones
Female Cat/Squirrel – Isabel Leonard
Mother/Chinese Cup/Dragonfly/Shepherd – Kelley O’ConnorWedgwood Teapot/Little Old Man/Tree Frog – Philippe Castagner
Grandfather Clock/Male Cat – Ian Greenlaw
Armchair-Tree – Kevin Deas

New York Choral Artists
Brooklyn Youth Chorus

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 6 October, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This program conducted by New York Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel offered two gems of the repertoire of France: “L’enfant et les sortilèges” by Ravel, and the majestic and imposing ‘Organ Symphony’ by Saint-Saëns.

“L’enfant et les sortilèges” is a one-act opera based on a text by Colette, “Ballet pour ma fille”, which she submitted to the Paris Opera during World War I as a scenario for a ‘féerie-ballet’ in search of a composer. Several composers were suggested, but Colette only become enthusiastic when Ravel’s name was mentioned. The text turned out to be an ideal subject for him. The fanciful score is witty and colorful, full of strange shapes and sounds.

The story, which is both a fantasy and a nightmare, is about a petulant child who is reprimanded by the objects in his room that he has been abusing. After being scolded for not doing his homework, the boy is sent to his room, where he throws a tantrum and destroys the objects around him before going to sleep. He is soon woken up by the unhappy objects, which have all come to life and start to take their revenge. The furniture and decorations threaten and abuse him. Even his books torment him, as his arithmetic homework emerges as a little old man and a chorus of numbers.

In the second part of the work, the room becomes a garden filled with singing animals and trees which all turn against the child. When the boy finally realizes it is better to be nice than naughty, they stop, and the opera ends in a peaceful chorale of reconciliation. The work is a masterly piece of lyric theatre. The story unfolds very quickly, and the music – some of the jazziest and most strikingly modern that Ravel ever wrote – perfectly captures the fantasies, joys, and fears of the child.

In this concert performance, Lorin Maazel made a superb impact, leading the Philharmonic players in an interpretation that beautifully captured the atmospheric magic of Ravel’s music, bringing out all its wit and charm. Highlights included the jazzy indignation of the broken teapot, the harrowing mutilation of the storybook princess and her fairy tale, and the pulsating life of the nocturnal garden, where the sounds of the night well up – nightingales, frogs, toads, the evening breeze, even a screech owl. The New York Choral Artists were wonderful, singing the melancholy chorus of the shepherds and shepherdesses whose wallpaper images have been destroyed by the boy. The members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, as the voices of the animated furniture and numbers in the arithmetic textbook, were also excellent. The vibrant mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer brought her rich sound and a delightful mischievousness to the role of the boy, and soprano Patrizia Ciofi excelled in her roles as Fire, the Nightingale and the Princess. The other singers, also singing multiple roles, were also impressive in this completely captivating, totally magical performance.

For the second half of the program, Maazel led a dazzling account of the third (fifth to be written) and most important of Saint-Saëns’s five symphonies— the vigorously romantic ‘Organ Symphony’, so-called (erroneously) because of the prominent use of the instrument. In this stunning performance, full of lyrical color and imaginative detail, the thunderous (if not first) entry by New York Philharmonic organist Kent Tritle in the finale made a splendid effect, as Maazel pushed the music forward in a single sweep of great intensity. This was a splendidly opulent performance from beginning to end.

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