I've always loved the music of Maurice Ravel, the French 20th-century composer extraordinaire, and have always been mystified by his critics, those who heard in his lush palette nothing but banality and coldness. Igor Stravinsky, who I always thought should have known better, sniffed that Ravel was just a clever watchmaker of a composer. I've read analyses of Ravel's music that compare his exotic textures to the bourgeois knick-knacks to be found in a Parisian department store.
And then, finally, on Wednesday night, I heard for the first time what Ravel's critics were complaining about. It wasn't a pleasant experience.
The occasion was a complete performance of Ravel's masterpiece, his ballet score for Daphnis and Chloe, first presented by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1912 and performed on Wednesday night by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena. It should have been a triumph. In the first half of Thursday's concert, Mena had conducted a lovely performance of music by Enrique Granados and a spectacular reading of Carl Nielsen's Violin Concerto with Finnish superstar Pekka Kuusisto. Both were wonderful.
But the Ravel lacked urgency, polish and passion. It was a bit sloppy, with a few missed entries. It's one of those scores: once considered impossible, now standard fare for a modern symphony orchestra. Maybe it was a bit under-rehearsed. Not that the TSO players didn't handle their parts magnificently. But that was the problem. It was all parts of a whole, all individual moments and sounds and phrases that never seemed to cohere. And without that coherence, those phrases – the ones that I've loved for decades – sounded hollow and contrived. I heard what the Stravinskys of the world had always heard in this music. It was devastating for a Ravel freak like myself.
Admittedly, playing the complete Daphnis score – meant to accompany a ballet after all, not be presented as a concert piece – has its challenges. Not every note Ravel wrote is telling. But that wasn't the problem. It felt as though Mena didn't quite believe in the score (that may be completely unfair, but that's how it felt). The passion in the music, the pain and longing and joy and violence, all seemed to be drained out of it. The famous dawn sequence that opens up Part 2 zoomed by as though it were a sped up time-lapse National Geographic video. And the same was true for so many other evocative moments: Somehow the musical juice to be extracted from them was left untouched.
And what was surprising is that exactly the opposite was the case for the Nielsen Violin Concerto that ended the first half of the concert. Admittedly, Kuusisto is a one-of-a-kind violin player – supple, lyrical, virtuosic and intensely personal all at the same time. He played the Nielsen as though it had been written for him – actually he played it as though he had written it himself, so thoroughly did he inhabit this odd, compelling music. The Nielsen concerto, written just the year before the Ravel, is in an unusual two movements, both of which start slowly and end quickly, in a musical language that is very classical on one hand and more modern on the other. Kuusisto made every twist and turn of the score make sense, and conductor Mena was with him every step of the way. The performance was balanced, expressive and thrilling, just as you hope music can be. The TSO played brilliantly.
Who can tell why one part of a concert works, while another doesn't. And the TSO crowd probably didn't share my disappointment at Daphnis and Chloe. They were still cheering as I made my way to Roy Thomson Hall's underground parking lot. Maybe I expected too much and was comparing this Daphnis to the many I've heard on record. But I don't think so. You can tell when a performance is reaching you, is living up to the potential of the written score. This one wasn't doing the trick. The Ravel nay-sayers are still wrong, in my opinion. The score to Daphnis and Chloe is one of the most beautifully written works of the 20th century. Some of that beauty was in evidence Wednesday night. However, for me, not quite enough.