Slatkin Travels With His Orchestre National de Lyon to Carnegie In a Rich Program for Unsettled Times
By Joanne Sydney Lessner, Contributing Writer, February 15, 2017
A visit from an international orchestra as renowned as the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL) is always cause for celebration, but their upcoming American six-city tour, which hits Carnegie Hall on February 20 with Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming, warrants some special attention.
The last time ONL visited the United States was in 2003, the year the Department of Homeland Security was established and French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries in protest to France’s reaction to the invasion of Iraq. Since then, France has been victimized by terrorism, and the White House’s proposed ban on immigrants has impacted visiting international artists. The timing of ONL’s visit and its repertoire with American, French and Middle Eastern elements, reverberates with contemporary significance.
“At seventy-two, it’s the first time I’ve conducted an orchestra not from the U.S. in New York, and I’m proud to come with an orchestra where I’m the music director,” says maestro Leonard Slatkin. “The program is ideally suited to New York. It’s a combination of things New York hasn’t heard before and a couple of things they have. It’s a chance to hear one of France’s very best orchestras playing music of its own. We also have a couple of little tricks up our sleeve at the end.”
The centerpiece of the program is the American premiere of Antar, which Ravel concocted in 1910 as incidental music to a popular play by French-Lebanese writer Chekri Ganem. Pressed for time, Ravel borrowed heavily from Rimsky-Korsakov, who had composed his own version in 1897, so the piece is more Rimsky than Ravel.
“When we first found about it, we thought the only way to do this would be to have narration written that could tell the story as you go through the piece,” says Slatkin. To that end, ONL commissioned narration from a contemporary French-Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf, librettist of several operas by Kaija Saariaho. The story, a Romeo and Juliet-type tale from the sixth century, is well known in the Arab world. Hampson narrates an English translation of Maalouf’s French text by Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande. As Slatkin observes, “It’s not often that you can present something by a great composer that has not been heard before. And the music is incredible.”
The concert also features the premiere of Celephaïs, a symphonic poem by ONL Associate Composer Guillaume Connesson, based on a similarly exotic tale by American fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.
“[Connesson] is one of the most important and influential French composers of the day,” says Slatkin. “He doesn’t write in the prevailing late twentieth/early twenty-first century style. His music harkens much more back to Ravel and Debussy, full of colorful sounds, very effective. It’s important for a French orchestra to bring something that’s going on today in France, but has a relationship to the other pieces on the program.”
In addition to the two premieres, Fleming lends her rapturous soprano to Ravel’s timeless Shéhérazade, and the program concludes with his Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2, one of the orchestra’s specialties, according to Slatkin.
One of the stops on ONL’s tour is in North Carolina, where arts and sports organizations have canceled appearances because of the state’s stance on transgender rights. “I might have thought about that if I’d been taking an American orchestra, but there’s not anything myself or the orchestra can do about that, so it didn’t come into play,” Slatkin says. “And maybe, just maybe, those who come to the concert will have a little better understanding of how people from so many different backgrounds come together to perform. They’re from all over—I don’t know how many nationalities. We’re poster children for what it should be.”
Information on Orchestra National de Lyon’s Carnegie Hall appearance on Monday February 20 is here. ONL’s 2017 U.S. tour also includes dates in Storrs, Newark, Winston-Salem, Athens, West Palm Beach, and Gainesville.
Cover photo: Conductor Leonard Slatkin; photo: Nico Rodame