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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Mar 29, 2018

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier Traces Ravel's Journey

This month Yan Pascal Tortelier leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program celebrating the 90th anniversary of Maurice Ravel’s historic visit to San Francisco. Here, he talks of his lifelong love for Ravel’s music.

How much does conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier love the music of Maurice Ravel?

“It has nothing to do really with whether he’s the greatest French composer or not. It is simply that Ravel is the composer I hold closest to my heart. When I die I want to hear some Ravel!”

Which makes Tortelier the perfect conductor for the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts of April 19-21. They commemorate an epic North American tour Ravel made in 1928, leading orchestras in some twenty cities, including Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago . . . and San Francisco, in performances at the Curran Theatre.

When Tortelier took the engagement, he wasn’t immediately aware of its historical significance, “which makes it even more special for me, in that I am taking on a big responsibility.”

This month’s program includes Ravel’s Shéhérazade, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as soloist. (It was a San Francisco premiere in Ravel’s 1928 concert). “Susan and I have already enjoyed making some beautiful music together and even recorded Shéhérazade. I’m looking forward to being with this great singer, who sings French music so marvelously!”

Tortelier begins the concerts with two works by Debussy, the Sarabande from Pour le Piano, and Danse, both orchestrated by Ravel. “It is very meaningful that we include those items by both Debussy and Ravel, as we have been lucky to have over the nineteenth and into the twentieth century a wonderful tree of French composers. Among them is a lineage starting with Berlioz, who discovered Saint-Saëns, who taught Fauré, who taught Ravel; each one inheriting from the other in that order.

“Also Nadia Boulanger taught me, who was herself a pupil of Fauré. And thanks to her I feel connected to that lineage. But this is how I view the progression: A French musical genius culminating with the music of Ravel and Debussy. To me, they are inseparable. I look at them like Castor and Pollux in the firmament of French music. Debussy is about mystery, and Ravel is about magic.”

Castor and Pollux (the Gemini) are the immortal twins of Greek and Roman mythology. Tortelier’s concerts include another mythological pairing, Daphnis and Chloé, who have inspired many works of art, including Ravel’s ballet score of the same name. The work is heard in an adaptation by Tortelier himself.

“I have been dealing with Ravel since I was ten years old [he turns seventy-one during these concerts, coincidentally], so let us hope I have acquired a little bit of feeling for him. Previously I orchestrated his famous Trio, which happened to be on my first program with the San Francisco Symphony, twenty years ago. So, it is also a sign between San Francisco and me that we should specialize in Ravel. And what an orchestra for that purpose, aside from the fact that former SFS Music Director Pierre Monteux conducted the premiere of Daphnis in Paris!

“However, I always thought that Daphnis was somehow overshadowed by the phenomenon of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which premiered around the same time. The Rite’s infamous scandal partly eclipsed the absolute masterpiece that Daphnis is as well. But when we play only the [Daphnis] Suites, of course we play the best parts, but it’s a bit like lollipops taken out of context; there is so much more beautiful music in the ballet that is forgotten, it’s too bad! So, I decided to go back to the original but without what I think is not indispensable in concert.

“In fact, the whole story is not, between you and me, so captivating. [Shepherds, pirates, a happy ending, thanks to the intervention of the god Pan.] But you don’t mind, because Ravel transcends the subject. What he is doing in this ballet, is celebrating love! It’s like Romeo and Juliet, just a slightly different narrative. But the music is to die for!”

Bearing in mind the visit his beloved Ravel made to San Francisco in 1928, will Tortelier feel as if he’s traveling back in time?  

“Yes, yes, absolutely! This is why I am not completely joking when I say this is going to be the greatest concert of my life!”

—Steve Holt

Steve Holt is a veteran journalist and musician