This weekend, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will perform dance-inspired works by Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Zoltán Kodály and Claude Debussy.
The music should get your feet in motion whether you are attending the concert in person or livestreaming it in the comfort of your living room. Note that the orchestra is trying a new venue, ilani’s Cowlitz Ballroom, because its usual home at the Skyview Concert Hall is off-limits due to pandemic-related restrictions.
“We will start the concert with Ravel’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess,’” said Salvador Brotons, the orchestra’s conductor and music director. “It is a sweet little piece with gorgeous orchestration.”
You might be tempted to think that Ravel wrote this brief work as a tribute to a royal personage who died tragically. However, the title refers to a slow processional dance that dates back to the Italian Renaissance. Influenced by that idea, Ravel composed “Pavane for a Dead Princess” as a throwback to an earlier era when a young Spanish princess might delight in this stately dance in quiet reverie.
Ravel did dedicate the “Pavane” to Princesse Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer, a notable arts patron and an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune). The princess’s Parisian mansion contained a 1,500-square-foot room, mirrored à la Versailles, in which 250 spectators could be seated comfortably. Scholars are sure that Ravel played the “Pavane” there, but no record of the event has been found.
The “Pavane” originated as a piano piece, which Ravel orchestrated later. Like other pieces on this concert program, it was the orchestral version that generated public acclaim and secured a place in the standard repertory.
Stravinsky gained international fame for the ballets he wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, including “The Firebird,” “Petrushka” and “The Rite of Spring.” Following those successes, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky for a one-act ballet based on the antics of Pulcinella, a traditional character from Neapolitan commedia dell’arte (a kind of improvised performance art).
“Pulcinella” premiered in Paris in 1920 with choreography by Léonide Massine and sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso. In 1922, Stravinsky arranged 11 of the ballet’s 18 movements and created the “Pulcinella Suite,” which has remained an audience favorite ever since.
“This will be the first time that I will conduct Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella Suite,’” Brotons said. “It is in a neoclassical style. The music is inspired by Pergolesi, an early classical-style composer. It is a wonderful piece, full of challenging solos for the orchestra, contrasting tempi and character.”
Zoltán Kodály and his countryman Bela Bartok are two of the most famous collectors of folk music. In “Dances of Galánta,” Kodály channels back to his youth when he lived several years in the Hungarian town of Galánta, which is now located in Slovakia.
“Dances of Galánta” is based on folk tunes called verbunkos, which were originally songs and dances performed by the military to lure young recruits.
“Kodály is great,” Brotons said. “I love his Hungarian-styled melodies and exciting fast rhythms. I have conducted ‘Dances of Galánta’ several times, always from memory, but this will be the first time with the Vancouver Symphony.”
The four movements of Debussy’s “Petite Suite” are imbued with rhythmic motion, starting with “En Bateau” (“In a Boat”). This section depicts a sensual ride in a boat as it dreamily floats during a warm summer day. The “Cortège” movement describes a refined woman promenading with her pet monkey. “Menuet” echoes courtly dances from the 18th century, while the carefree “Ballet” is full of Parisian joie de vivre.
Originally written for piano, “Petite Suite” catapulted into popularity after it was adapted for chamber orchestra by Henri Büsser, one of the composer’s friends.
“Debussy’s ‘Petite Suite’ is very delicate,” Brotons said. “Büsser did a fabulous orchestration. It is known that Debussy loved his orchestration so much that he really enjoyed conducting this piece.”
Don’t be surprised if Brotons sways a bit on the podium as he leads these works, because they are among his favorites.
“I always program music that I truly love very much,” Brotons said. “It is crucial to me. I cannot conduct music well if I do not love it.”