Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's "French Connection" tackles Milhaud, Weill, Ravel and Debussy: A Review | Rock Candy

Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's "French Connection" tackles Milhaud, Weill, Ravel and Debussy: A Review

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Okay, so the Brazilian rhythms in Milhaud's "Le boeuf sur le toit" ("The Bull on the Roof") didn't always line up, and perhaps the composer himself pushed what could have been a cute five minutes of dissonant flute and oboe vignettes into a protracted fifteen. Still, Saturday night's concert from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra was an absolute delight. To see the ASO flexing a somewhat auxiliary muscle was fun and refreshing, and I hope people get out this afternoon to hear the raucous program which, in part, recalls the timeframe when early 20th century French composers had major musical crushes on Gershwin, et al.

"Le boeuf," Milhaud's "surrealist ballet," as ASO Associate Conductor Geoffrey Robson called it —- was worlds away from the seat-filling safe bets that make up the Greatest Hits of Classical Music and, despite wearing its jazz influences on its sleeve, was simultaneously worlds away from any pops/Broadway repertoire. The composer, perhaps thumbing his nose as Brahms, as Robson said, fashioned a dance that was alternately voluptuous, sublime and goofy, with the aforementioned dissonance working as musical cartoon, like the impressionistic landscapes painted by Oliver Wallace's score for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland." Except, maybe, a "Wonderland" in which the scenery changed every eight or sixteen bars.

Afterward, when the violin section departed to allow for the Steinway grand to be wheeled out for rock star pianist Ji to play Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, it felt like ritual. Like a magician who arranges things before your very eyes to show you he hasn't rigged anything up to deceive you. Ji arrived on stage in a snug, crisp white button-up shirt, impeccable shoes and white pants with a mid-calf hem length and a loud print. Enough of a hotshot to quell any sartorial objections from more conservative patrons, Ji's fingers flew as they do on the Android commercial "Monotune," and the ratio of notes played to time on stage was dizzying.

Ravel was tight with Gershwin, musically, as the second movement's simple but "scintillating engaging melody" (Robson's words) demonstrated. It was given a reverent treatment by Ji, and the unity of the violin section behind him was perfect in this and other moments, like a perfectly attuned hive of bees, humming vibrantly at the same frequency.

Then, as my listening companion described it, a giant vacuum came and sucked every ounce of jazz out of the room. Kurt Weill's "Berliner Symphonie," seven movements played as one 20-or-so minute continuous brooding statement, was utterly serious and desperately inquisitive, fists raised to the sky, a la Jerry Goldsmith's score for "Planet of the Apes."

And then came Claude Debussy's "Petit Suite," otherwise known as dessert. The sweet collection of four vignettes from the man Robson called "the father of modern music" was so festive and sparkly it made me fantasize about a brilliant feat of Christmastide computer hacking, wherein every satellite radio instance of that tired old rendition of "Sleigh Bells" were replaced with this confection from Debussy; I think we'd all enjoy the holiday a little more.

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