ASO at Carnegie Hall – “Orientalism in France”

Last night I attended a typically intriguing American Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall.  Leon Botstein led the orchestra in a program of "French" music (counting Cesar Franck, Belgium-born, as French since he spent much of his career in Paris) inspired by oriental themes.  There was music by Saint-Saens, Ravel, Delage, Franck and Bizet – the last a rare concert performance of the one-act opera, Djamileh, about the "love triangle" of an Egyptian lord, his butler and his slave girl. 

Taking last things first, Djamileh was a real treat.  Eve Gigliotti, a mezzo-soprano, sang the role of Djamileh, the slave girl in love with her master while lusted for by her master's butler.  I thought she was good, but it took some time for her to warm up and appreciate how much extra effort one needs to put in to being heard over an orchestra with an audience in Carnegie.  Colin Ainsworth, a splendid tenor with a big, warm voice, made great work of the part of Haroun, the lord.  And Philip Cutlip, a baritone with a fine voice and comical acting talent, was terrific as the butler.  The Collegiate Chorale did the choral honors splendidly.  Bizet has two great operas, Carmen and The Pearl Fishers. By comparison, Djamileh is recognizably by the same composer, but lacks the memorable tunes that make those other operas part of the repertory (and even Pearl Fishers is less well-established, while Carmen is probably among the top 5 repertory operas today). 

Without any warning from the program book, Djamileh was sung in French but with occasional dialogue interpolated in English, which was a real shock when the first English words were spoken.  The piece was conceived for the opera-comique, in which dialogue was spoken rather than sung.  (Carmen was also conceived for the opera-comique, and an "authentic" Carmen will have spoken dialogue instead of the recitatives composed after Bizet's death by other hands to make the piece suitable for the regular opera house in Paris.)  I think it is worth an occasional staged revival, paired with a suitably contrasting one-acter.  I had never heard it before, and an on-line search after I got home turned up only a handful of recordings with limited availability.  There's treasure to be mined here.  Thanks, Leon Botstein (who conducted with great spirit and sympathy) and the ASO for introducing it.

The first half consisted of rarely heard numbers.  I am a big Saint-Saens fan and have an extensive collection of his music in recordings and scores, but I had never previously heard "Orient & Occident," Op. 25, originally conceived for concert band and later orchestrated.  My post-concert on-line search yielded only a recording of the band version…  As to Ravel's Ouverture de feerie Sheherazade, it is rarely played by comparison to his later composition on the same subject for solo voice, and I did not have it in my collection, despite my extensive Ravel holdings.  Oddly, the greatest novelty on the program, Maurice Delage's 4 Hindu Poems for soprano and chamber ensemble, is in my collection, thanks to the adventurous spirit of Anne Sofie von Otter.  On this occasion, it was enchantingly sung by Julia Bullock, whose stunning dress was as remarkable as the vocalise she performed as part of one of the songs.  (I do have to note that the English translations of the French verses in the program book seemed odd to me, quite a departure from the French.)

Finally, Franck's semi-concerto for piano and orchestra, Les Djinns.  This does get an outing from time to time, but the themes and their development are so much less interesting than his "Variations symphoniques" for piano and orchestra that the piece is cast in the shadows.  Julia Zilberquit was excellent in the solo part, but not much can really be done to stir concentrated interest in what sounds to me like a St-Saens piano concerto wannabe….  It was like St-Saens without the good tunes. 

But overall, a worthwhile concert, admirably performed, and fulfilling the ASO's mission of presenting music that NYC concertgoers rarely hear and should get to hear now and then.  None of these works deserve to be repertory staples, but all of them deserve to be heard in good performances, such as they received last night.

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