SCINTILLATING EVENING OF FRENCH MUSIC AT FIU FESTIVAL
By Lawrence Budmen
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) symbolized the French spirit in music. Clarity of musical line and texture, effervescent melodies, inventive instrumental writing, and the ability to meld high art with popular culture were the hallmarks of their musical aesthetic. Both composers rebelled against the 19th century French obsession with German culture (e.g. Cesar Franck and Ernest Chausson's admiration for Wagner). Ravel was deeply influenced by American jazz while Milhaud (and his fellow "Les Six" composers) drew their inspiration from the French music hall. The Florida International University (FIU) Music Festival opened a week long "Salute to the Composers of France" with an evening of chamber works by Ravel and Milhaud on November 4, 2003 at Coral Gables Congregational Church.
Darius Milhaud composed over 400 published works. He wrote scores in every conceivable genre - choral, orchestral, solo instrumental, songs, and large scale operas. Yet his chamber music remains the least known component of his vast musical output. The "Octour" ("Octet"), Opus 291 may be his most ambitious chamber work. In "Octour" Milhaud combines his "String Quartets Nos. 14 and 15" into one simultaneous performance by two string quartets. The resultant score is a riveting, dissonance tinged journey that is both audience friendly and highly original. The austere slow movement is a huge layering of string textures. The final movement of this score is pure "Les Six" - light, airy, and irreverent. The technical demands Milhaud imposes on the string players in this work are daunting. The superb Miami String Quartet was joined by four of their students - The Pez Quartet (FIU Graduate String Quartet).
The high strung brilliance of the eight musicians' performance was astounding! This unusual ensemble produced a glowing, silky tone in the slow movement. Chauncey Patterson's viola solos were real standouts. His glowing beauty of tone and eloquent, long limbed phrasing were the mark of a patrician artist.
The two component scores that comprise the "Octour" were no less fascinating. The "String Quartet No. 14" taps Milhaud's lyrical vein. This score has more than an admiring echo of Faure's music. The opening movement (Anime) has the sweet textured lightness of a wonderful French soufflé. The beautiful song like melody of the Modere leads to an emotional climax of unexpected power. The principal theme of the concluding Vif recalls the thematic material of the final section of Jacques Ibert's "Ports of Call" - pure exhilaration. The Pez Quartet (Joon Ho Min and Pei Ju Wang, violins; Jaime Crawford, viola; and Anna Callner, cello) gave an incredibly confident, well coordinated performance. Some early intonation problems were quickly righted. The slow movement was warmly projected. The Pez foursome's rendition of the final movement had both rhythmic bounce and precision.
The "String Quartet No.15" is a more astringent work. After a lively, air borne first movement, the music becomes more dissonant and complex. The concluding movement seems to have a forced gaiety beneath the difficult cross rhythms. Milhaud's trademark use of polytonality is very much on display in this score. The soaring, richly beautiful playing of the Miami String Quartet (Ivan Chang and Cathy Meg Robinson, violins; Chauncey Patterson, viola; and Keith Robinson, cello) set a new standard even for this remarkable foursome! The score's high register pyrotechnics were dispatched with panache. The group's light textured, sparkling playing was the very essence of French style. The opening movement was pure string velvet, anchored by Robinson's deep hued cello tone. The quartet's scintillating reading of Milhaud's uncompromising final movement was dazzling - a great performance!
The Milhaud works were enhanced by the showing of excerpts from a documentary interview with the composer's widow Madeline Milhaud. FIU School of Music Director Frederick Kaufman interviewed Mme. Milhaud in Paris last year. She was 100 years old at the time but still lucid and eager to speak about her husband's remarkable creative life. She traced Milhaud's artistic journey from Paris to Mills College in Oakland, California to Aix-En-Provence. She also spoke with great enthusiasm about her husband's role in founding the Aspen Music Festival. (Dr. Kaufman won the Milhaud composition award at the Aspen Festival in the 1970's.) She also noted that the "Octour" and the two string quartets that comprise its component parts are his greatest compositional achievement. Her comments inspired these FIU performances.
Ravel's "Piano Trio" is one of the neglected gems of the chamber music repertoire. The deeply felt passion of the outer movements belies Ravel's reputation as a light weight impressionist. The second movement Pantoum is a dizzying neo-Baroque dance with the musical fizz of great champagne. The third movement Passacaille is a gravely beautiful homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. The noble melody of this movement sings from the solo cello in an unforgettable manner. The Razumovsky Trio, a new FIU ensemble, gave a brilliant performance of this Ravel masterwork. Cellist Carter Enyeart played the third movement solo with eloquence and musicality. Violinist Robert Davidovici's fiery playing was brilliant and exciting. Pianist Kemal Gekic played with expressive nuance. Here was a wonderful new chamber ensemble that holds great promise for future musical outings.
Davidovici and Gekic opened program with a taut, rhythmically gripping performance of Ravel's "Sonata for Violin and Piano." Davidovici's liquid, distinctive tone is perfect for this sinewy music. While Gekic is a virtuoso piano soloist, he is also a first rate chamber musician. He always collaborates harmoniously and never attempts to dominate the musical proceedings. Here his playing had exceptional sensitivity and a striking variety of tonal hues. In the middle Blues movement, Davidovici caught the jazzy humor and executed the tricky pizzicato with pin point accuracy. (The bluesy violinistic slides in this movement are Ravel's tribute to the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.) Davidovici are Gekic are an exceptionally felicitous duo!
The warm acoustics and intimate ambience of Coral Gables Congregational Church enhanced this outstanding FIU Festival offering. Rarely heard music in dynamic performances - an exhilarating evening!