All good art has a superficial layer that is adequate for enjoyment. What appears beneath the surface, however, is detail, revelation and honesty. The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015, conducted by Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester, featured Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 18” and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 6” — each capable of revealing a hidden truth.
Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” was originally written as a set of piano pieces for two children: Mimi and Jean Godebski. That the music was written for children (and their small hands) belies the inventiveness and genius of this work, especially in its most performed version for orchestra. Anything Ravel touches with his orchestration turns to gold: Mussorgky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Debussy’s “Sarabande” and “Danse,” his own “Tombeau de Couperin” and this suite.
To only listen to this as music about fairy tales is missing the point that Ravel’s score is perfect. It is delicate and balanced, and the orchestra obliged the composer’s vision with a colorful and nuanced performance. Mester provided minimal coaxing, instead letting the orchestra be an ensemble. Of note was principal clarinetist Andrea Levine’s tender and velvety solo in the fourth movement. To nitpick, a few exposed violin passages—both in Ravel and Shostakovich—lacked cohesion and focus.
Pianist Chu-Fang Huang’s debut in Louisville also means her debut with this Mozart “Piano Concerto No. 18,” but the newness of the work to her was mostly unnoticeable. Overall it was a safe and comfortable performance, but dismissing Mozart’s 18 concerto as enjoyable, like Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” misses the point. Its depth lies in the details beneath the surface.
In the first and last movements we saw Huang the consummate technician, showing brilliant skill and elegance with her craft. But dazzling as it was, the middle movement showed us her artistry and depth. Mozart was an opera composer and his dramatic tendencies are often found in his concertos. The orchestra’s introduction sets up the piano’s “aria,” and Huang gave her Steinway the most cantabile treatment.
After intermission, Mester and the Louisville Orchestra concluded with the dark and perplexing “Symphony No. 6” by Dmitri Shostakovich — one that Leonard Bernstein called “a body without a head.” Formally, yes, there isn’t an allegro (fast) first movement. But it also may mean that the first movement (the torso in this metaphor) is all heart. For an unbroken 20 minutes, Shostakovich is brutally honest. Yes, this is a sorrowful time and, yes, there is little hope. The orchestra stayed attentive and energized through this desolation, giving us a clear picture of Shostakovich’s psyche. The closing movements (loud and fast) were ferocious, but in light of this context—beneath the surface—they are less about hope or triumph, and more about irony.
The Louisville Orchestra’s first concert in 2015 featured Music Director Emeritus Jorge Mester with pianist Chu-Fang Huang, making her Louisville debut. The second performance is Friday at 8 p.m. in Whitney Hall. Classical 90.5’s Alan Brandt will be joined by Mester for the pre-concert talk starting at 7 p.m.
Daniel Gilliam is the program director for WUOL Classical 90.5.