As the 2014-15 cultural season resumes after a two-week Mardi Gras hiatus, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is staging two concerts this weekend — in Covington and New Orleans — featuring works by three of Europe’s greatest 20th century composers.
Guest conductor Teddy Abrams will lead the 70-member LPO in Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’” Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G major” and Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances.”
Piano prodigy Alessio Bax will be the guest soloist on the Ravel “Piano Concerto.”
The concerts will be at the First Baptist Church in Covington on Friday, Feb. 20, and at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in New Orleans on the following night. Both concerts start at 7:30 p.m.
Based on an 1860s poem by Stephane Mallarme, Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’” is a 10-minute symphonic poem for orchestra that is considered by many musicologists to be one of the most innovative classical pieces in the French repertoire.
It was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, and, in later years, it was adapted as the background music for widely acclaimed ballets by Vaslav Nijinsky (1912) and Jerome Robbins (1953).
The piece, in which the flute plays a prominent role, is considered to be a milestone in the history of classical music. One of the leading Debussy interpreters, renowned French composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez, credits the score as being “the beginning of modern music.”
Many technical innovations Debussy perfected in both his classical compositions and his one completed opera (“Pelleas and Melisande”) have been copied by other musicians right up to the present.
The Ravel “Concerto in G major” was composed between 1929 and 1931. It contains three movements and is replete with influences from the newly emerging jazz styles that originated in New Orleans and spread to other parts of the U.S. where Ravel heard them on a concert tour in 1928.
Among his comments on the uniquely American musical idiom, Ravel noted, “The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm. It is a vital source of inspiration for modern composers.”
Alessio Bax will be the concerto’s featured soloist on piano. Hailed in a cover story by “International Piano” magazine, his extensive concerto repertoire has led to performances under some of the world’s leading conductors and composers.
As an active chamber musician, Bax has collaborated with such top names as pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Paul Watkins of the Emerson Quartet and many others.
Following intermission, the LPO will perform the 35- to 40-minute Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances.” An orchestral suite consisting of three movements, it was completed in 1940 while Rachmaninov was living on Long Island, New York, in self-imposed exile from his native Russia.
The piece was premiered on Jan. 7, 1941, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy two years before Rachmaninov’s death. It is unique in many musical dimensions, particularly for its inclusion of an alto saxophone in the orchestral arrangement.
In later years, the piece would actually accompany dances choreographed by Peter Martins for New York City Ballet (1994) and Edwaard Liang for San Francisco Ballet (2012), two of the “elite” American ballet companies.
Abrams, in addition to being a highly in-demand conductor, is also an accomplished pianist and clarinetist. He has appeared as a soloist with a number of orchestras — including playing and conducting the Ravel Piano Concerto with the Jacksonville Symphony in the fall of 2013. Other credits include major orchestras in Los Angeles, Washington and New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall.
Until recently, Abrams was the assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, where he programmed and conducted a wide variety of concerts.
He is presently the music director for the Louisville Orchestra and will be making his New Orleans conducting debut.