A cultural colossus

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Reflections of France

By Pat Suarez

Photo: Classical pianist Pascal Rogé will perform with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for their Reflections of France concert Feb. 6 and 8

Sometimes, size doesn’t matter. Consider France. In land mass, France is smaller than Texas. But in terms of historical influence in language, politics, exploration and – especially – the arts, France has been, for centuries, a colossus.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debuted there. French painters are cornerstones in the world of visual art. French cinema affected American cinema beginning in the 1950s. And classical music would not be what it is today without more than 500 years of French composers.

On Feb. 6 and 8, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman, will showcase two French works – one a piano concerto that should see more performances than it receives, and the other one of the symphonic genre’s darlings.

When one thinks of Maurice Ravel, long musical lines of ethereal melodies come to mind, as do dance-like rhythms and occasionally percussive tunes. Ravel, whose musical career crossed two centuries amidst the Romantic, post-Romantic and 20th century Serialism, was one of the anchors of Impressionism – a compositional movement that reflected the gauzy paintings of Ravel’s countrymen. In his hands, an orchestra spun out melodies that transported the listener to far away emotional places. But let Ravel combine a piano and symphony orchestra and all bets were off.

In the first half of the DPO’s Reflections of France concerts, Maestro Gittleman and piano legend Pascal Rogé present Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G-major, a three movement work that defied everything concert audiences had come to expect from their nation’s dean of classical music. The wild card was jazz.

In 1928, Ravel visited New York and New Orleans, meeting George Gershwin during his trip. Ravel immediately became entranced with America’s unique style of music. And there’s little doubt Ravel heard Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Piano Concerto in F as there are elements of Gershwin littered throughout Ravel’s G-major concerto, which he completed just three years after his trip.

The concerto begins with the crack of a whip, followed by zephyrs of tunes tossed from one principal to another – DPO Principal Trumpet Charles Pagnard will get the workout of his life here – before settling into the piano. The first movement is marked by exotic harmonies, spiky rhythms and changes in tempo, carried along by Ravel’s trademark impressionism. Outside of Gershwin, there isn’t another piano concerto in the literature like this one, and the first movement provides ample evidence of that. The second movement is gorgeous and almost melancholy, making extensive use of the upper registers of the keyboard. The last movement bursts the concerto back to life, with the opening measures foreshadowing the final measures of the work. There is energy to burn here, pulling the audience along at a breakneck clip to the finale.

The soloist will be Pascal Rogé, one of classical piano’s most prominent figures. Rogé has been performing for more than a half-century and has won countless awards. His knowledge of Ravel and the G-major concerto is unsurpassed, so DPO audiences will be hearing performances that are authentic in every sense of the word. That authenticity extends to Neal Gittleman, as well: He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Annette Dieudonné in Paris.

After intermission, Gittleman and the Philharmonic return for the Symphony No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saens, completed in 1896. If there were an official Top 10 in classical music, this symphony would surely hold a place there.

Among Saint-Saens’ three numbered symphonies, his third, in four movements, is as separate stylistically from the other two as Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony is from his other six. The moniker “Organ” seems out of place if one were to hear just the first movement: the organ doesn’t appear until the second movement – a long, luxurious interweaving of organ, strings, winds and brass. Concert attendees should carefully listen to – and bask in – Saint-Saens’ out of this world harmonies when the strings and organ work together in this movement. As Ralph Vaughan-Williams made melodic magic in the second movement of his London symphony, Saint-Saens achieved the same level of heavenly success here.

The third movement is a busy scherzo, setting up the grandeur of the last movement, which opens with a full-throated cry from the organ. Saint-Saens offers an episodic molto allegro, ramping up tension and anticipation for nearly eight minutes, until reaching the acclaimed final pages.

The concerts open with American composer Charles Wuorinen’s 1988 composition Machault mon chou, whose inspiration was the Messe de Notre Dame by the 14th century French composer Guillame de Machaut. Wuorinen maintains the nearly 700-year-old melodies, but reimagines them into a 20th Century framework.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Reflections of France Thursday, Feb. 6 and Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Schuster Perfoming Arts Center, 1 W. Second St. There is a Classical Connections concert on Friday, Feb. 7. Shows begin at 8 p.m. For more information, including ticket prices, please visit daytonperformingarts.org/philharmonic.

Reach DCP freelance writer Pat Suarez at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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