For this Sunday’s season finale with the Montclair Orchestra, we take a trip to France, long a cultural beacon for the rest of the world — the cuisine, the wine, the art and literature, and the very language itself are just a few of the many ways in which French culture has indelibly influenced the rest of us. Indeed, the effect the recent fire at Notre Dame had on people worldwide illustrates how the magnificent cathedral is emblematic not only of France, but of Western culture at large.
Music of course being another integral component of French culture, all-French symphonic concerts have long seduced audiences with their impressionistic and virtuosic display of orchestral color. For Sunday’s program, however, I wanted to provide an alternative to the standard feast of Debussy and Ravel, and instead explore French music from a more classical period.
Georges Bizet, whose Carmen could be the most popular opera ever composed, wrote his Symphony in C at the age of 17; it may be a student work, but it is an utterly brilliant piece that combines classical simplicity with effortless effervescence. Similarly, although Hector Berlioz was one of the first great Romantics in music — certainly the harmonic daring and extraordinary imagination of his song cycle Les nuits d'été are far more forward-looking than Bizet's youthful work — most of his musical (Gluck, Beethoven) and literary (Virgil, Shakespeare) inspirations were firmly rooted in the classics. One most often hears the Berlioz sung by a mezzo-soprano, but on Sunday’s concert we will offer the less-traveled option of a low male voice, in this case the magnificent baritone of Yunpeng Wang.
The work that might seem out of place on the program is Haydn's Symphony No. 60, another relatively early work of astonishing vitality. As it turns out, the great Austrian composer's impetus for writing this piece was the play Le distrait by Jean-François Regnard, considered (after Molière) the second-greatest French comic poet of the 17th century. The six movements of the symphony — originally intended to serve as overture, four entr'actes, and finale for the five-act play — vividly depict the absent-minded title character with a series of musical blunders which are yet impeccably blended into the flow of the music.
For me, this homage to France has a quite personal meaning, as I consider myself practically half-French after 12 years of curating a music festival in Burgundy .... if the French will accept me, of course. 😊 In any case, I hope that a bit of my own personal "French Connection" will come through with the joyous music-making of this season finale.
Don’t miss this scintillating program if you are in the area! It takes place at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair on Sunday, April 28 at 7:00 pm. Tickets are available online here.