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Unleash your inner classical music aficionado – an ex...

Maverick Life

MAVERICK LIFE: BOOKS

Unleash your inner classical music aficionado – an excerpt from Rodney Trudgeon’s ‘Concert Notes’

Image courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers

Playful, fastidious, reclusive... This was Maurice Ravel, of course, not the man behind the velvet voice of Rodney Trudgeon, who has tickled South Africans’ ears with the finest classical music on the airwaves for decades. Find out more about the life and work of Ravel – just in time for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s Summer Concert Series, which will feature his music this February – in this excerpt from Trudgeon’s new book, a compilation of his concert notes.

Do you ever wish you had time to read the programme notes in depth before rushing to take your seat at a concert – or that you could quickly find out more about that sublime piece of music playing on the radio?

With Rodney Trudgeon’s Concert Notes: A Selection of Favourite Orchestral Masterpieces, you can enrich your musical listening experience at your leisure. Trudgeon is a name long associated with classical music broadcasting in South Africa. He is currently the Classic Breakfast host and programme manager of Fine Music Radio in Cape Town.

For his new book, Trudgeon has selected nearly 250 regularly performed works from his programme notes and pre-concert talks – covering the Baroque period to the 20th century. From Bach to Weber, he looks at famous concertos, overtures, symphonies and more, discussing them lucidly and evocatively.

***

MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)

Ravel, born to a Basque father and Swiss mother, studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Three times he tried and, interestingly, failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome composition award, but by the time of his third attempt, he was already composing important works. Ravel was regarded as a fastidious, perfectionist composer who was also somewhat reclusive. He was deeply affected by the death of his mother, and seemed to abandon all close human contact thereafter.

Piano Concerto in G major

Ravel wrote the G major Piano Concerto towards the end of his life, interrupting work on it to compose the Concerto for the Left Hand. He confused his contemporaries by writing in the London Daily Telegraph that his new concerto was “very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns”. Listening to the piece one might rather think of Gershwin! In fact, during a tour to the USA in 1928, a year before he began work on this concerto, Ravel visited Harlem jazz clubs with George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman and was captivated by what he heard. It seems as though Ravel poured more of his serious side into the Concerto for the Left Hand, in contrast with the light-hearted, jazzy touch that he brought to his G major concerto.

Ravel’s love of children, toys, mechanical objects (no doubt learnt from his father, who was a mechanical engineer) and fairy tales is evident in the playful writing for percussion and woodwind in this concerto. The very opening snaps us to attention with a whip-crack before the high piccolo dashes off with a theme which the piano enthusiastically joins in accompaniment. There is almost a circus atmosphere for a while, before the piano introduces a more easy-going, languid theme. The mood is seductive, with the feeling of the blues not far away. But the perky atmosphere of the opening returns and takes the movement to a close with a bang on the bass drum.

The second movement is a beautiful adagio, for many listeners the reason for loving this work. Ravel said that he had been listening to the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet when he composed this movement. The piano begins with a long, sensuous theme over a waltz accompaniment in the left hand. In time, the woodwinds join in, while the piano continues with its waltz accompaniment. Soon the piano is spinning out a gentle cascade of notes as a sort of halo around the rest of the orchestra.

The finale is all too brief. A high-pitched clarinet shrieks, the trombones slide seductively, the bassoon tries its hand at a virtuoso passage, and all the while the piano spins through the music. The woodwind writing is certainly imaginative and virtuosic as the concerto races to a conclusion with a bass drum thump.

Boléro

It is clear that when Ravel wrote Boléro in 1928, he had no idea that the piece was going to become something of an obsession with audiences the world over. In fact, his own description of the piece was “a work for orchestra without music”. It is the sort of work that has to be heard live for it to have its full impact, and it has been known to mesmerise, hypnotise and even eroticise, famously in the film 10.

It is an extraordinary piece of music which has elicited many memorable quotes. Leonard Bernstein was dumbstruck when he heard it at one of the first concerts he ever attended, and he subsequently referred to it as the “bible of orchestration”. Charles O’Connell said that “its maddening rhythm, its hot and glowing colour, its crushing climax never fail to excite and fascinate most listeners”. Max Harrison took a more sinister view of the piece: “This is a disturbingly effective attempt at turning the orchestra into a machine and even suggests an ultimate mechanisation of humanity itself. Its single, insidiously unforgettable melody is repeated again and again, as if it cannot be escaped.”

But how amazing it is that, no matter how often we hear it, with its repeated rhythm and theme, we continue to succumb to its power. Ravel’s supreme command of orchestral colour keeps us on the edge of our seats as the relentless crescendo builds to a shattering climax. The most unlikely combinations of instruments are heard – saxophones, a horn and celesta with two piccolos in different tonalities, an exhilarating trombone solo swooping through the theme, the oboe d’amore, and more – above the almost manic repetition on the side drum of the principal rhythm.

Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)

In 1908 Ravel decided to write a suite of five piano pieces inspired by the fairy tales of Charles Perrault. One doesn’t readily think of this rather austere man as being an avuncular type. Yet, although he avoided close relationships and became even more distant after the death of his mother, he felt a love and tenderness for children that are vividly illustrated in his Mother Goose, which he originally wrote for piano, four hands. He had become quite friendly with Mimi and Jean, the two children of his close friends the Godebskis, and dedicated the work to them; but they were not to premiere the work. That was left to six-year-old Christine Verger and 10-year-old Germaine Duramy.

Only three years later, in 1911, he was asked by a friend to orchestrate the suite and to think about fashioning it into a ballet. Ravel liked the idea and saw its potential, so he added a prelude and a few links between the movements and used the story of the Sleeping Beauty as a framework for his fairy tales. In this form, the ballet was premiered in Paris in 1912, and the original four-hand piano version had to wait for its premiere until 1920.

Throughout, Ravel’s orchestration is a marvel of delicacy and airy textures. ML

Rodney Trudgeon’s Concert Notes: A Selection of Favourite Orchestral Masterpieces is published by Jonathan Ball (R250).

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