BIZET Music from the Carmen Suites
Bizet’s Carmen is considered by many to be one of opera’s finest. The story is a hot and spicy one. At its core is a love triangle between the Gypsy cigarette-maker Carmen, the corporal Don José, and the bullfighter Escamillo. For extra flair, Don José is embroiled in his own love triangle, torn between the temptress Carmen and Micaëla, a sweet-as-pie girl from home. Add the opera’s exotic Spanish staging—a cigar factory, a tavern, a deserted smugglers’ camp, a bullring—and a cast of street urchins, fortune-tellers, and Gypsy dancers, and you get . . . a torrent of objections by early patrons who were shocked by the opera’s debauchery.
These days, the Carmen Suites, made up of excerpts from the enduring opera, are two of the most popular works for orchestra. Tonight opens with Les Toréadors, featuring the famous “Toreador’s Song” (*earworm alert*). Then a tense, brooding Prelude followed by the Seguedilla, during which one easily imagines Carmen seducing Don José. Les Dragons d’Alcala leads into a luminous Intermezzo, a flamenco-tinged Aragonaise, the sinuous Habanera, and finally the Danse Bohème brings it all to an unbridled climax.
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
How in the world is this going to work? When a wealthy soldier who lost his right arm in battle returned home, he began commissioning piano works for the left hand alone. Ravel was game. The resulting masterpiece—one of the greatest among twentieth-century piano concertos—is a singularly powerful distillation of the composer’s sinister side. The climate is established in the opening seconds: dissonant, thunderous, solemn, jazzy.
When the soloist at last begins playing—wow. The first leap spans five octaves—one-handed!—capped by a glissando from the keyboard’s bottom A to the top D. An expressive lyric piano melody leads to a crackling scherzo. The concerto’s color, gray and glare, is distinctive; its scoring, astonishingly inventive. The brilliant, eye-popping cadenza is a wonder. Cue a fierce orchestral crescendo and the music swells to a brusquely furious end. It seems it gives Ravel manifest pleasure to write for one hand as though it were three. (It works!)
SAINT-SAËNS Symphony No. 3, Organ
Saint-Saëns’ last completed symphony opens with a quiet introduction, then launches into a nervous theme; when the organ enters it demurely enriches the texture. This beautiful first movement, seemingly veiled in ecclesiastical piety, is gradually overtaken by an atmosphere of languorous passion. The second movement begins with a temperate though strongly accented scherzo. Tension builds: a loose volley of scales, upward sweeping intensity, then the music fades into
nothingness. But then—a mighty chord from the organ, one that dependably propels a portion of the audience several inches off their seats. An extraordinary and
elegantly shaped chorale follows, transforming into a string melody so gorgeous
that it seems plucked from an operatic love scene. Saint-Saëns cranks it up to
conclude in a blaze of majesty.