In Annapolis, a symphonic trip to France


Like all up-and-coming conductors making headway in the music world these days, Leslie Dunner is a fellow on the move. And that mobility seems to have made an impact on his programming here at the end of his second season with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.

In March, we were transported to the exotic, songful, melancholic, sometimes cruel heart of Mother Russia courtesy of Borodin, Prokofieff and Tchaikovsky.

This time around, the mood lightens, textures become more transparent, and the musical colors start to smudge like crazy. It's France we visit tomorrow and Saturday evening as Dunner gives us a pair of supremely sensual compositions crafted by two of the 20th century's greatest masters: Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Maurice Ravel's ballet score, "Daphnis and Chloe."

Ernest Chausson's "Poem of Love and the Sea" and Darius Milhaud's charming "Suite Provencale" round out the program, which begins at 8 p.m. on the stage of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sebron joins the orchestra for the two sumptuous songs that make up Chausson's "Poeme de l'amour et de la mer."

"I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment," Debussy said. "I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naive candor of a child."

In his mini tone poem, "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune," he did just that. With a solo flute at the center of his instrumental color scheme, Debussy evokes the languid, dreamy feel of Stephane Mallarme's snoozy poetry.

In the poem, we meet a faun slumbering in the netherworld between consciousness and sleep. As he senses the presence of comely nymphs, he frolics with them briefly, then resumes his siesta. (This faun, by the way, is no relation to Bambi. It is a mythological creature possessing human features, horns and a goat's tail.)

Composed from 1892 to 1894, "The Faun" was Debussy's first masterpiece. Indeed, the exotic sonorities and pointillist splashes of orchestral color he came up with are still setting the music world on its ear a century later.

Musical revolutionaries, like the political variety, provoke their share of enmity from folks sensing the imminent collapse of the old order. "I would soon lose my voice if I went around roaring vacuously like a faun celebrating its afternoon," harrumphed Camille Saint-Saens.

"If that was music, I have never understood what music was," said Gabriel Faure after the premiere of Debussy's opera "Pelleas and Melisande" in 1902.

Debussy wasn't fazed in the least. "A century of aeroplanes deserves its own music," he wrote in 1913. "As there are no precedents, I must create anew."

A tale from classical antiquity was the inspiration for "Daphnis and Chloe," the ballet score that many (myself included) rank as Ravel's finest work. It is also one of his most expansive, calling for a large complement of percussion, a wind machine, and a full chorus oohing and aahing wordlessly backstage.

One can easily sense the connection between Debussy and Ravel when "Daphnis" and "The Faun" are taken in side by side. The adventuresome harmonies and brilliance of orchestration so present in both are hard to miss.

But Ravel was very much his own fellow, a unique voice to say the least. It was his affinity for jazz that led to some wonderful compliments from that music's greats. "Someone was screaming for a rumba when I put on Ravel's 'Daphnis and Chloe,'" Duke Ellington once recounted.

"Hey," the Duke said approvingly, "THAT'S a rumba!"

The lithe precision that flowered in Debussy's music also can be found in Chausson's songs of love and the sea. For all the intense chromaticism of Chausson's melodies and the sumptuousness of his orchestration, nothing in the "Poem" aches or throbs in the style of, say, Richard Wagner, which is exactly what those French fellows had in mind. And let's not forget Darius Milhaud's delightful "Suite Provencale."

Francophiles, front and center! This piece is about as close as you can get to dining on rabbit with lemons and garlic plus fresh fruit clafouti without flying to southern France and having to spring for the whole excursion yourself.

Information: 410-263-0907.

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