(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
The air in the Long Center was charged this past Friday night as the Austin Symphony presented an all-French program, just a week after the attacks in Paris.
As ASO’s Peter Bay told the audience in his opening remarks, this was a twist of fate — the pieces were chosen more than a year ago. and yet here they were, a week after these shocks to the conscience, performing work by France’s Ravel, and a spiritual French work called “Gloria.”
Bay, appearing on stage with Conspirare’s director, Craig Hella Johnson, dedicated the concert to the people of France, as well as to peace-loving people everywhere.
And in a gesture of support to the French people, the evening began with the Marseillaise, sung handsomely by choir, orchestra members and the audience. It’s besides the central point, but having the anthem’s lyrics projected on stage, words like “aux armes citoyens!” (“to arms, citizens!”) provided a startling insight into a dangerous geopolitical subtext lurking, unintended, perhaps to be played out by western powers. No matter how deeply we read the text, this was a stirring gesture.
At the ticket counter before the show, I overheard the agent tell a student that there were no last-minute student tickets to be had. Too bad for the student, but a bonus for the ASO and Conspirare.
And it was well worth the attendance. Poulenc’s “Gloria” is a, 30-minute work that was utterly beguiling. With Conspirare’s symphonic choir nestled in every available square inch of the back of the stage (members were provided with chairs alongside the risers, because they could only fit while standing), they had a monumental presence. Their soaring voices packed a punch, often providing a soundscape that would be an ideal accompaniment for say, space travel.
Soprano Mela Dailey sang with a warm, ethereal vibrato, and strong presence. This work comes in bite-sized bits, and the stops and starts Poulenc wrote often seem as though they could simply be ignored and segued one into the next.
Johnson had the two ensembles tightly wound, maintaining our attention throughout. The orchestra part was dripping with atmosphere, building up Poulenc’s old fashioned Hollywood-styled themes an aura of seriousness, both dark and soothing. The choir sang with brilliant pitch and precision.
Occasionally a shrill brass note popped its head up, but “Gloria” was earnest and endearing and found Conspirare’s ocean of voices in outstanding form.
Next in the all-French program came Ravel. His “Daphnis and Chloé” is a ballet, but the score itself is a marvel, a Cy Twombly painting of musical colors tell the story.
With Bay returning to the helm to conduct the Ravel, the work began with the great looming of the nearly silent basses, then a burst from the orchestra and choir in bloom.
The choir here isn’t called upon very often. Ravel, ever the Frenchman, uses them as expensive, yet, vital window dressing, to make eerie hollow clouds that cast out over the orchestra. When they sing, it’s beautiful. The orchestra’s doing most of the heavy lifting. And there were some hushed viola and cello themes of a heart-stopping beauty, punctuated by a series of flute solos.
And speaking of flute solos, Rachel Lopez played this work’s famous solo with a graceful, lithe mood that carved out intrigue. A gorgeous tone too.
Then there are other fantastical oddities — a wind machine, an alto flute, harps and more. (A keyboard glockenspiel anyone?), and they build a fascinating cluster of sounds. Somewhere in the middle the tension in the work seemed to slip away. Luckily it returned again, storming to a powerful, electric finale.
This was a satisfying program, one that balanced novelty and history, that brought us a theme but with very different ideas from each composer. And in the context of these troubled times, an outstanding distraction from so much noise.