Americans, on Paris

Springfield Symphony presents Paris When it Sizzled

By Pat Suarez

Photo: Guest pianist Alexander Schimpf will perform with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra for their Paris When It Sizzled program

It was called “The Great War,” the war to end all wars. It lasted from 1914 to 1918. More than 16 million military and civilians died, while 20 million more were wounded. It was World War I and because another world war followed with greater casualties (and no end of media coverage for the last if its participants over the past decade or so), World War I tends to be regarded as more benign.

That war was anything but benign: World War I saw the first use of airplanes, mustard gas and automatic weapons that could spit out hundreds of rounds in a flash. Humanity was not prepared for the severity of that new weaponry, either medically or psychologically. After five years of exhausting carnage, the citizens of Europe wanted a new start and an end to the depression of mechanized death. They just wanted to have fun.

While the United States tried to have a good time, the more prudish among us tried to force alcoholic abstinence on its citizenry. Roaring Twenties? It took Europe, and more specifically France, to show the U.S., indeed the world, how to try to put the horrors of that five year nightmare behind them.

It was in Paris that the term Années Folles, or Roaring Twenties, was coined. For the middle and upper classes, that meant practically unlimited revelry that often crossed over into debauchery. Music. Literature. Alcohol. Tobacco. Sex. Nothing was off the party agenda.

And, indeed, there were Americans in Paris: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Joséphine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, of course, George Gershwin hung out there. Bonus? You could live on next to nothing: Of Paris, Hemmingway said, “Paris was one long binge, all the more delightful because it was so inexpensive.” These visitors and expatriates were not only influenced by this environment, they also provided not an insignificant level of intellectual party fuel.

“After the bygone catastrophe of the First World War there must have been a huge desire on the one hand for amusement, on the other hand for new revolutionary ideas and creativity in the arts,” mused Alexander Schimpf, who will appear as guest pianist on Feb. 28 for the Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Paris When It Sizzled.

“Paris has always been a magnet for cutting edge thinking in music,” Music Director Peter Stafford Wilson, who will conduct the concert, said. “Haydn wrote a series of symphonies in Paris on commission from the Chevelier du Saint George, a prominent musician of African descent who was a leader of the musical scene in the 18th century. Fast forward to the early 20th century and you had all sorts of styles and thought. Prokofiev, Milhaud and Ravel represented the extremes of musical creation. Juxtaposing all of these essays in one program will be exciting.”

Fittingly, the concert opens with Igor Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet Pulcinella, a work that saw its Paris premiere in 1920, the gateway to the Roaring Twenties.

The suite is in eight sections, some taken from the complete 20-movement score and some revised. If what you know of Stravinsky is along the lines of The Rite of Spring, you will be surprised. Pulcinella is, for the most part, serene, lilting and graceful; it is a ballet, after all. If you put Haydn and Brahms into a musical tumbler, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella would fall out. Still, this is Stravinsky and you hear his trademark use of simultaneous high and low notes with little in between. The suite concludes with the breathless swirl of a tarantella.

Stravinsky’s countryman Sergie Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 follows Pulcinella. Although not a product of the Années Folles (Prokofiev wrote it in 1911 and 1912), stylistically it fits into Maestro Stafford Wilson’s Parisian environment. This D-flat major concerto is one of the shortest piano concerti in the catalogue, clocking in at around 15 minutes, but it makes up for in substance what it lacks in length. In the opening Allegro brioso, the second movement Andante assai and final Allegro scherzando, if you think you hear echoes of Rachmaninoff, you wouldn’t be wrong. Prokofiev was normally not a proponent of lush, long romanticism, but there are decided elements of that other Sergei in this concerto.

The soloist will be the German pianist Alexander Schimpf, the recipient of several awards over the past decade. Schimpf has toured extensively in Europe and South America and made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011. Since then, his demand has accelerated, including future dates in Boston and Chicago.

After intermission, the SSO will perform the music from Marseilles native Darius Milhaud’s peppy ballet Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof). Sporting one of the most intriguing titles in all of classical music, Le boeuf sur le toit celebrates Brazilian music and characterizes a bar with that name. Milhaud had visited Brazil during World War I and fell under the spell of the intoxicating music popular there, far away from the suffering and conflict in Milhaud’s homeland. In 1921, a Parisian cabaret/bar by the same name opened and became the non-stop gathering spot for the avant garde of the time.

“The big surprise with be the Milhaud Le Boef sur la Toit,” Wilson said. “It is a collection of Argentine tango tunes that originally was to serve as the background music for a Charlie Chaplin film. Sheer fun!”

The concert closes with one of Maurice Ravel’s masterpieces, the suite from the ballet Mother Goose. Also written before the Roaring Twenties, Mother Goose began life in 1908 as a piano duet for the children of a friend of Ravel’s. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated the piano duet, employing the familiar device of impressionism, established in the world of French art and adopted into classical music by Ravel and Claude Debussy. The music is atmospheric and closes with one of Ravel’s most ravishing orchestral achievements.

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra presents Paris When It Sizzled at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 at the Clark State Performing Arts Center, 300 S. Fountain Ave. in Springfield. For tickets or more information, please call 937.328.3874 or visit springfieldsym.org.

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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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