Ravel Has the Dallas Symphony All Hot and Bothered

Categories: Music Notes

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Climax!
Have you ever heard Ravel's "Boléro" performed live? If your answer is no, then you need to go to the Dallas Symphony this weekend. Splurge on good seats. It'll be worth it.

"Boléro" begins with a whisper of a snare motif (dum, da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum, dum, dum). As the snare raps on, the sound of a lone flute introduces a mesmerizing and instantly recognizable melody before passing it off to the clarinet. One by one the woodwinds take their turn with the tune. A saxophone sings it out sensually. The violinists hold their instruments like tiny guitars and begin to pluck along with the snare. The sound builds as brass instruments enter and strings swell. The entire piece is a massive crescendo leading to an abrupt but satisfying climax.

"Boléro" can justifiably be criticized as repetitive or didactic. I feel like I should be tired of this piece by now. In a sense it is a bit of a gimmick. I've heard it many times, and I know what's coming. But last night I bought the gimmick again and, along with the rest of the audience, allowed myself to be transfixed by the irresistible sounds of a satiny smooth oboe, a rich horn and sensuous strings.

Ravel was an expert orchestrator, always playing with the diverse timbres available to him and highlighting their sounds in new ways. Boléro, a piece that showcases, one by one, each instrument in the orchestra, is a perfect example of the composer's skill. It's also a great opportunity for an orchestra to show off, and this orchestra's strengths are uniquely suited for its demands. The soloists are stunning. The dynamics impossibly quiet and impossibly loud. In this hall, with these musicians and this conductor, you'll likely hear the best "Boléro" of your life.

This weekend's program as a whole felt a bit disjointed. Four relatively short pieces are featured (the longest clocking in at 30 minutes). There's a loose and somewhat meaningless "French" theme given that three of the four pieces were composed by late-Romantic French composers. A somewhat random Mozart piano concerto takes up the fourth slot. But wait! The pianist is French-Canadian! I guess that makes it work?

But if the program as a whole is less than cohesive, the individual elements are completely satisfying. In fact, that random Mozart might have been the highlight of the night. Louis Lortie gets a liquid sound from the Steinway. His feel for the piece is playful and his cadenzas (the solo sections of the work that he himself composed) verge on romantic: Here he slows the perpetual motion of Mozart's strict classical timing, giving us a moment of beautiful reflection. Under Jaap van Zweden's bow, the orchestra's phrasing and interpretation in this piece was impeccable.

The night's opener, Gabriel Fauré's "Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande," plodded a bit. It was beautifully played and there are some lovely moments, but even though it was the first piece on the program, it felt like a bit of an afterthought.

"Daphnis and Chloé," another sonic wonderland of a crescendo by Ravel opens the second half. It began with some of the most magically shimmering sounds I've heard in the Meyerson in a while. It lasts 18 minutes, but feels like 5. In fact, it might be the sexiest piece on the program. Make sure you're ready for a second half that includes not one, but two big climaxes.


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