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by Suzanne Yanko

Ravel’s Bolero, for all its fame, takes only about 15 minutes to play, so even a orchestra of the stature of the Melbourne Symphony could not simply play it and close up shop for the night. The MSO could, however, build a program around the work, and this is what happened last weekend: an all-Ravel performance. Unusually for a symphony concert, two works required a soloist – the mezzo Katarina Karneus and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, respectively – although the first and last items were entirely orchestral pieces. The first comprised excerpts from the ballet suite Daphnis and Chloe, commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes’ first season in Paris. This event, as described in the program notes, and the evocative photograph of the Fokines dancing the work in 1912, placed the work in its historical context. ‘Daybreak’ evoked birdsong and sunrise, thanks largely to strings and winds, while ‘Pantomime’ and ‘General Dance (Bacchanale)’ revelled in the balletic brief for Daphnis and Chloe. Simple courtship soon gives way to pirates, nymphs and the god Pan, needing percussion and brass for the big finish (and shades of the music to come at the end of the concert). The orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Tadaaki Otaka, has a restrained style that, at first, seemed at odds with the extravagantly Romantic music. Very soon, however, this was evidently a blessing, drawing out the beauty of the music while not allowing any one section to become overblown. After all, we still had three more Ravel pieces to go… Stockholm-born mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus was the focus of attention for Scheherazade, music that showed how entranced Ravel was by the Tales of the Arabian Nights. A major re-arrangement of the orchestra gave some prominence to two harps – although the flute should have been as visible as it was audible, especially in the ‘story’, La flute enchante. Karneus, handsome in a bright red gown, has a beautiful voice, with a strong upper register that was needed for this demanding work. Occasionally her voice seemed to soar above the orchestra (the MSO again demonstrating its sensitivity when accompanying), but some lower notes were nearly lost – the Town Hall acoustics being the obvious culprit. Still, the lingering memory was of Karneus’s sonorous rendition of La flute enchante, and the languorous partnership with the orchestra in the final L’Indifferent. After interval came a very different mood, as pianist and international star, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, made an emphatic entry in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G – then delivering a gentle solo, showing that he could take whatever challenges the composer might send his way. The orchestra similarly revelled in the pace, dance-like rhythms and florid sound of the work, although Bavouzet had the best of it, with long passages showing off his mastery of the instrument while the orchestra kept a steady pace beneath. But the end of the first movement was so showy that performers and audience alike enjoyed a brief laugh; Ravel had to be joking! The second movement brought an immediate contrast, with a dream-like piano solo in waltz time to begin, and the orchestra following the piano’s lead. This was the pattern into the third movement, with the soloist setting a furious pace and leading the orchestra to a showy and brilliant climax. At last, it was time for Bolero. Here, Otaka showed the absolute control that is needed for this work to be properly understood and enjoyed. The beginning was so quiet that you could see orchestra members playing before hearing them – except, of course, for the flute. (It was interesting to see string players occasionally strum their instruments on the beat, adding to the unmistakeable sound of the opening bars). With the melody reiterated, the work is about rhythm and, particularly towards the end, a carefully controlled crescendo. Watching the percussionists move into position for the (long) final onslaught signalled an excitement in the audience. Bolero does not need ‘arrangements’, it does not need to be a film soundtrack nor even the music for the best ice-skaters of their time. Ravel’s Bolero just needs a fine symphony orchestra led by a conductor who understands the music completely and can carry the work to a brilliant, extended, roof-raising climax. And that’s what we got from the MSO in this performance. Rating: 5 stars out of 5 Bolero Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Tadaaki Otaka – conductor Katarina Karnéus – mezzo-soprano Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – piano Ravel – Daphnis and Chloe: Suite No.2 Ravel – Shéhérazade Ravel – Piano Concerto in G Ravel – Bolero Melbourne Town Hall July 20 – 21

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