Live Review: Breathless Whirl of the Baltimore Waltz – Ravel @ the BSO (2009.01.15)

Atypical Romantic

Atypical Romantic

The BSO, under the baton of visiting French conductor, Stéphane Denève, harnessed this whirling beast with great aplomb, taking us for a lovely hurl towards the edge of Viennese culture — as seen by the French composer. I’ve never heard a more genuinely- paced rendition.

“The impression of fantastic and fatal whirling” — this is what Maurice Ravel had to say of composing La Valse in 1919. That’s all that remained after he’d first envisioned La Valse — the tone poem — back in 1906. What intervened? Only the cataclysm of World War I.

Imagine yourself, asking a lovely partner of the opposite sex to waltz, to step — while turning — with a leg directly between your own. Chances are, you’d get drunk first. Just like you do before you go out to bump and grind. Denève offered a most drunkenly-divine slowness to start this unholy ballroom dervish. There’s a flash of percussion promise, a swish of skirt riot from the woodwinds before the strings take up. Best of all, as this turbine cranked up to full devilry, the cellos were raw and randy. There was almost a Latin-like squaring off with the two string sections as things got steamy.

Enter percussion — like the man running his hand up fast from the small of the woman’s back and ripping down her zipper in a flash of smoke (resonating cymbals). Yet, we’re still whirling…and then he unzips her corset…and throws her on the bed. The bed just happens to be at the place where the café-sidewalk ends… where Archdukes should take cover, and young men fire 15 rounds per minute.

And while you might think this a climax, the evening had only just begun. So proclaimed the badass double-buckled shoes of guest soloist Frank Braley (pictured above) as he strode toward the Steinway. This night put the long-haired variety of classical peacock on display. These two French guests, conductor and pianist, both sported fantastical manes. And Mr. Braley came quite unshaven. However, his wonderfully careless way of playing Franck’s lightweight Symphonic Variations was excellent in proportion: sometimes taut, other times fluid. One imagines that’s how Romantic playboy Liszt would have executed it.

When Braley took the line alone, he started with an earnest, almost silent query. As he proceeded his way up the piano with an almost planetary retrograde gesture he was firmly imploring — to end by toggling the highest keys — perfectly articulate, dare we say: like a man who knows how to handle searching for the lady’s G.

To finish off, the best Rachmaninoff I’ve ever heard: his Symphonic Dances. No piece has put the BSO woodwinds on such display. They carried this work. And then there was the alto sax. In the hands of Gary Louie, we were molded into the shape of this piece as wax warms in the palm. The splashy brass of the second movement brings us straight back to the Ravel with its tempe di valse. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney threw some strident longing into it as the meandering flute soared over the company. The final movement offered some more grind amidst chime, with the tambourine to bring it home.

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