Classical Music & Dance

The Classical Beat: KC Symphony tackles Debussy’s sexy ‘La Mer’

Symphony associate conductor Aram Demirjian will conduct the program featuring Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.
Symphony associate conductor Aram Demirjian will conduct the program featuring Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. David Bickley

A friend once told me that he thought Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” was the sexiest classical piece ever written.

I can hear what he means. With its swelling tides and crashing waves, “La Mer” has an unmistakably erotic quality.

Debussy’s impressionistic painting of the sea will be performed by the Kansas City Symphony Friday, Saturday and Jan. 25, along with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Joyce Yang as soloist.

The Symphony’s associate conductor, Aram Demirjian, will conduct the program, which also includes Maurice Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole.”

“‘La Mer’ is a desert island piece for me,” Demirjian said. “It’s an endless source of fascination for me as a musician, both as a performer and as a listener. It’s magical, in a way. It runs the gamut of all the different characteristics that the sea projects, from moments of calmest tranquility to climaxes of the utmost majesty and everything in between.

“It can also be experienced as just an abstract piece of music. It’s a piece that truly stirs the spirit and excites the senses.”

But “La Mer” was not well-received when it was first performed in Paris in 1905, partly because it was not given adequate rehearsal time and partly because Paris was upset with Debussy, who had recently left his wife for singer Emma Bardac.

Since its premiere, however, “La Mer” has come to be considered a masterpiece of orchestral tone painting and one of the finest examples of impressionism in music.

“Rapsodie Espagnole,” another French work, will open the concert. Ravel’s “Rapsodie” is another work that was not a hit with audiences when it was first performed, although Spanish composer Manuel de Falla loved it. Like “La Mer,” it has subsequently found a place as a concert staple.

“Ravel and Debussy are forever linked in music history because they’re both French and they both composed at the same time,” Demirjian said. “They’re both considered impressionist composers, regardless of how you may feel about that particular label. But I like to think of Debussy and Ravel as sort of using the same toolbox but building very different structures.

“Especially in the ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’ by Ravel. This is a set of dance pieces, Spanish dance music as conveyed to Ravel by his mother, who was of Basque heritage. There is a primacy of rhythm in the Ravel.”

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is the featured work on the first half of the concert. Composed in 1909, it is the epitome of Russian romanticism. Opening with a slow, haunting theme reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant and redolent of incense, the concerto builds over three movements to an explosive finale that, when played by a true virtuoso, leaves the audience gasping in awe.

“The third piano concerto might be Rachmaninoff’s greatest achievement,” Demirjian said. “He composed the third concerto about eight years after his second concerto, and I feel like it reflects a maturity and subtlety in his composition.

“Rachmaninoff wrote this piece for himself to perform. He was a tall person with big hands, and he was writing music that a lot of people just couldn’t physically play. He was one of the few people in his time who could actually play his music.”

Rachmaninoff’s Third holds no terrors for Korean-born Yang, who won the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and graduated with special honors from Juilliard. In fact, she has made Rachmaninoff something of a specialty.

“Joyce is a phenomenal performer of Rachmaninoff’s music,” Demirjian said. “She brings an honesty and grace and generosity to her performances. She is a communicator on so many levels. In performance you really get the sense that she is reaching out to the audience, bringing them in. And she has a distinctive point of view that she wants to share. She never fails to capture an audience.”

As popular as Rachmaninoff has always been with audiences, over the years he has not always shared the same popularity with music critics.

The 1954 edition of the Grove Encyclopedia of Music devoted only a paragraph to Rachmaninoff, and what it did have to say about the composer was not very flattering: “His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last…”

“Rachmaninoff knew he was perceived this way, but he was unapologetic,” Demirjian said. “He said that his music was composed from a place of feeling where he felt like the music of his peers was increasingly being composed from a place of thinking. I don’t necessarily agree with that 100 percent because there is great emotional content and depth to each one of the pieces on this program. The Debussy is one of the most emotional pieces in the repertoire.

“But in Rachmaninoff’s music there is a directness to the emotion. You get the feeling that emotion is both the source and the product of the music. His heart and soul is laid bare through these incredible melodies that he presents both in the piano and the orchestra.”

Count Demirjian among those of us who adore Rachmaninoff. And he thinks Rachmaninoff, who also wrote choral works and symphonies, was not only a great composer for the piano but also the orchestra.

“I love Rachmaninoff’s orchestra music, both in terms of the accompaniment he writes for his concertos and his purely orchestral music,” he said. “I think his orchestration and his harmonic choices are incredibly satisfying to conduct. The way he writes for an orchestra is thick and buttery and warm and deep. If I’m doing my job right as a conductor and getting the Rachmaninoff sound from the orchestra, it’s an incredible thrill that never gets old.”

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Jan. 25. $23-$73. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

Harriman-Jewell Discovery Concert: Yun-Chin Zhou

Young Chinese virtuosos are rather common nowadays, but even in this somewhat crowded field, Yun-Chin Zhou is a standout.

The 24-year-old began his studies at the age of 7, eventually coming to the United States to study at the Curtis Institute. He is currently a student at Juilliard, where he won first prize in the prestigious Gina Bachauer Piano Competition in 2013.

Zhou is definitely a pianist worth discovering, and the Harriman-Jewell Series will give you an opportunity to do just that Saturday at the Folly Theater.

Zhou’s recital, one of Harriman-Jewell’s free Discovery Concerts, will feature music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. One of the works he’ll perform is “Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude” (“Blessing of God in Solitude”) by Franz Liszt, a gorgeous, dreamy work that deserves to be much better known.

7 p.m. Saturday. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. Free. Print up to four tickets per household at hjseries.org.

Patrick Neas is program director for RadioBach.com. To reach him, send email to pneas@jccc.edu.

Where you’ve heard:

▪ Claude Debussy: His “Clair de Lune” has been in the soundtracks of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” last year’s best-picture nominee “American Hustle” and two of the “Twilight” movies.

▪ Maurice Ravel: His pieces have appeared in this year’s Oscar nominee “Birdman,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” And, of course, Ravel’s Bolero was made infamous by the 1979 Bo Derek-Dudley Moore film “10.”

▪ Sergei Rachmaninoff: “All By Myself,” a 1975 power ballad by Eric Carmen, is based on the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18. Carmen believed the music was in the public domain until he was contacted by the Rachmaninoff estate, the parties agreed that 12 percent of royalties from the song would go to the estate.

Go here to listen to works from the composers mentioned in this week’s Classical Beat on Spotify.

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