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Orchestre de Chambre Français at the National Gallery

Ramón Casas, Erik Satie (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre), 1891, Northwestern University LibraryThe new exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre opened yesterday at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington (open through June 12). The exhibit's main creator, Richard Thomson from the University of Edinburgh, gave an introductory lecture at 2 pm, which I did not attend. (He is also behind the upcoming exhibit Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec, cosponsored by Tate Britain and the Phillips Collection.) Some part of the considerable crowds must have stayed on at the gallery (as I suggested to readers of DCist on March 15) to see the first free concert in honor of the new exhibit, the Orchestre de Chambre Français (.PDF file) with violinist Kyung Sun Lee. When I got into the line to find a seat, it stretched from the West Garden Court into the rotunda, around the circle under the rotunda, and almost all the way back to the West Garden Court, the longest I have ever seen the line for one of these concerts. Never fear: I did find a seat, close to the musicians but on the right side, with a column blocking the sightline.

The original information on this concert touted a program of "Ravel, Magnard, and other early 20th-century composers," the idea being, I think, to provide a musical soundtrack that might have accompanied the artist creation of Toulouse-Lautrec and the other artists in the exhibit, in the neighborhoods of Paris around the turn of the 20th century. The works chosen (sadly, no Magnard) were indeed the sonic counterpart of the art—thought harsh and cutting edge at the time but, to our tastes over a century later, now merely colorful and broadly appealing. The group that offered us this smorgasbord of treacly amuse-gueules, the Orchestre de Chambre Français Albéric Magnard, is based on a great concept: playing orchestral repertoire with what is essentially a chamber music group. For this concert, there were twelve string players at the stage end of the West Garden Court, arranged in front of a multipiece acoustic shell, which considerably helped to dampen and control the din of reverberation in this unusual sonic environment.

The program opened with conductor Brian Suits's arrangement of Claude Debussy's Petite Suite (1889). This sent me back to my undergraduate piano major days, when I had the good fortune to have as a teacher a pianist who was one-half of an excellent piano duo team. She insisted that I and a recital partner perform four-hands or two-piano repertory on our recitals every year, and this was one of the pieces we did. Petite Suite is a hell of a lot of fun to play, and it worked quite well in this arrangement, where the violins take most of the melodies in the primo part and the cellos those in the secondo part. The only Ravel on the program came second, the mutely tragic Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), arranged by the group's director, Christian Raverdel. Ravel himself arranged the piece a number of different ways but apparently not for this combination.

Charles Maurin, Loïe Fuller, c. 1895, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New JerseyThe rest of the first half featured the evening's soloist, violinist Kyung Sun Lee, who just happens to be married to conductor Brian Suits (a fact acknowledged in the program notes). The Canzonetta movement from a Concerto romantique, op. 35 (1876), by minor composer Benjamin Godard, is a simple piece with a cantabile melody in the solo violin over a mostly guitar-style pizzicato accompaniment in the orchestral parts. It was overshadowed by the truly lovely Saint-Saëns Romance in C Major, op. 48 (1876), arranged again by Christian Raverdel.

Another unusual composer featured on this concert was Guillaume Lekeu, who composed his Adagio for Strings in C Minor (Les fleurs pâles du souvenir) in 1891. At intermission, enough people had left that I was able to move from my mostly obstructed view to a more comfortable bench seat. Lekeu's piece is tortured and somewhat morose, and I thought it would never end, although the crowd seemed quite pleased, judging by their applause. Conductor Brian Suits whispered something to his musicians right before the penultimate piece, an arrangement of Debussy's La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair, 1882), from the first book of preludes for piano. Perhaps this piece was under-rehearsed, which seemed to show in the performance. Fortunately, the program ended on a stronger note when the orchestra was joined again by Kyung Sun Lee for Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 28 (1870). This was a great vehicle for Ms. Lee's technical prowess, and it was a predictable crowd pleaser. She also joined the orchestra for its encore, a wide-ranging arrangement of Gershwin's song I Got Rhythm, made for Ms. Lee by her husband.

This orchestra played very well, with admirable consistency and nearly flawless intonation, in spite of the challenging acoustic of the West Garden Court. If there was a problem with this enjoyable concert, it was the uniformity of tone in the choice of programming. The Lekeu piece was strange and rarely heard, yes, but why did they not play any Satie? The portrait of Satie at the top of this post, by Ramón Casas (El bohemio; Poet of Montmartre, 1891), is in the exhibit. The little write-up on the exhibition in the program says the following:

It was in the early 1890s that the painting's composer subject, shown impeccably attired and casting a quizzical sideways glance at the viewer, began frequenting Montmartre in the company of his close friend, the poet Contamine de Latour. The two men took up lodgings there, but neither could afford the gentlemanly lifestyle to which Satie was accustomed. Eventually he exhausted his resources and, to make ends meet, began to play regularly in the cafés-concerts, an uncomfortable fit for a composer whose aspirations were formed in the Paris Conservatoire.
Another piece that would have been perfect for this concert is related to the exotic dancer Loïe Fuller, shown in the second image here (and several others in the exhibit). According to Edgard Varèse, Fuller was the inspiration for the prelude named "Voiles" (Veils) in Debussy's Préludes pour piano, Book 1. I don't know how that piece, with its shimmering whole-tone scales, would sound with strings, but it would be great to have heard it.

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