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Ravel at Home in the Land of Music

March 29, 2018

Ninety years ago, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) undertook a four-month tour of North America, where he conducted his music with America’s major orchestras and appeared as pianist in recitals of his works. He hobnobbed with George Gershwin and Douglas Fairbanks, saw the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, and soaked up the culture of jazz-age Harlem and New Orleans. In February 1928, Ravel alighted in San Francisco to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a concert of his own works and several of his Debussy orchestrations. This month the SFS celebrates Ravel’s historic appearance in concerts led by Yan Pascal Tortelier, April 19-21. Here we re-visit this landmark moment in the history of the San Francisco Symphony.

“A slender, elegant, slightly bewildered Frenchman descended from the Overland Limited train yesterday to receive the plaudits of the San Francisco musical world,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday, February 1, 1928, when Maurice Ravel arrived here to conduct the San Francisco Symphony in a program of his music.

Even before 1916, when the Australian-American eccentric Percy Grainger began the tradition of composer-performers appearing with the San Francisco Symphony, Henry Hadley, the Symphony’s first Music Director, had led the Orchestra in many of his own compositions. After Hadley, after Grainger, the list of composer-performers continued to grow during the 1920s with appearances by Ernest Bloch, Georges Enecscu, Howard Hanson, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Ottorino Respighi. The 1930s and ’40s brought George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and Darius Milhaud, among others, to the San Francisco Symphony.

Yet even in this distinguished array, Maurice Ravel stood out as one of the greatest composers of his era. He was a special favorite with the audience here, who heard in his tangy and zestful music the barely controlled high spirits of the time. In 1921, the San Francisco Symphony had offered the American premiere of Ravel’s La Valse within a year of its world premiere in Paris, and it had proved a smashing success.

The composer, wandering in a land whose language he did not know and whose enormous cities dwarfed the majestic capitals of Europe, was greeted at the Oakland train station by the Symphony’s conductor, Alfred Hertz, and was taken directly to a rehearsal of the Orchestra he would lead in a program of his music: Le Tombeau de Couperin, Rapsodie espagnole, Shéhérazade, and La Valse, as well as his orchestrations of Debussy’s Sarabande and Danse. It was all a little disconcerting—including the ferry ride from Oakland. which would not be connected to the city by the Bay Bridge until 1936. But the Chronicle spoke of a different span that the composer had crossed. “Once on the stage with his own music and the musicians before him, Ravel’s bewilderment dropped from him like a garment. The thousands of miles, between San Francisco and Paris, were bridged and the strangeness of the tongue here forgotten, for Ravel was home again—home in the land of music, which speaks a universal language.”

—William Huck

William Huck (1947-92) was a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

To learn more about Ravel's 1928 North American tour, visit the multimedia exhibit in the first-tier lobby.

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