Hidden from small

La Ville Lumière: The Philadelphia Orchestra Honors the French Capital with a Three-week Festival

November 30, 2016

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life,” Thomas Jefferson wrote some 250 years ago. Much later, James Thurber would call the city “a vast university of art, literature and music … a post-graduate course in Everything.” Novelist Laurence Durrell marveled at “the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism.”

The Eiffel Tower in Paris

In fact, Western society owes many of its ideas of democracy, egalitarianism, and fairness to the ruptures of the French Revolution, and correspondingly Paris has become a center of openness to outside ideas and cultures. Though the French and American revolutions grew from similar Enlightenment ideals, “multiculturalism” was in a sense a Parisian invention: It remains notable that as late as the 1930s prominent black Americans often felt more at home in the “City of Light” than they did in their own country.

This season The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin present City of Light and Music: The Paris Festival, a three-week celebration (January 12-27) and season-long focus on music emanating from, or inspired by, the French capital. It is the third in the Orchestra’s celebrations of the musical contributions of world capitals, preceded by festivals devoted to St. Petersburg (2015) and Vienna (2016).

Although Paris has embraced world cultures for centuries, the political and economic upheavals of the 19th and early 20th centuries brought special pressure to bear on a society that had been growing hidebound and static: French culture was spurred to new heights during this period, while at the same time refugees—many from former French colonies—brought a continual flow of influences from all parts of the globe.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings selections from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne during the first week of the Paris Festival. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Week 1 of the Orchestra’s Festival (January 12-14) introduces, as a point of departure, Parisian music in all its surprising variety: works created in Paris by French composers. It includes pieces representing the city’s grand traditions of opera (the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah); dance (the Suite from Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé, Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche, Fauré’s Pavane); music of the countryside (Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham); and the uniquely French drive to pay eloquent homage to the past (Ravel’s Menuet antique).

“The first week is completely Parisian, of course, with all French composers,” says Yannick. Especially dear to his heart in this program is Florent Schmitt’s ballet on the Salome story, created for the Ballets Russes in 1907 and containing conceptual ties to Strauss’s opera of the same year (which Yannick and The Philadelphia Orchestra presented in concert performance in 2014) as well as musical ties to Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel.

The first program also highlights the generational lineage of French composers through this period, “Saint-Saëns being sort of the patriarchal figure,” says Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning. This approachable but musically dense program “requires a certain level of communication, a flexibility of style,” Rothman continues. “Now in his fifth year as music director, Yannick feels like he’s able to paint with a more colorful brush—to get the sound he wants more quickly, in a wide array of repertoire.”

Tamara Karsavina as Salome in the 1913 Ballets Russes production of Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé.

For Week 2 (January 19-21 in Philadelphia; January 24 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), the Orchestra presents works of two composers who, like a host of others, fled economic and political hardships to make a new home in the city on the Seine. “Outsiders,” says Yannick, “people coming from different cultures. At a certain point, Paris was where everybody was meeting.” The successes of composers such as Chopin (Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Louis Lortie) and nearly a century later Stravinsky (Petrushka) suggest a discerning public that was open to the new yet consistently demanded music that entertained. “This program is really about the melting-pot of Paris as a place of refuge,” Rothman says, “a freedom, an openness to outside influences that has marked its culture for centuries.”

Finally, Week 3 (January 26-27) is devoted to music of French composers gazing at other cultures and reflecting upon them, as it were—“exploring the sense of exoticism,” Yannick says, “especially that of the Mediterranean.” French composers often found ways of capturing the flavor of Spain or Italy “even better than Spanish or Italian composers themselves,” he adds.

Berlioz’s Harold in Italy for viola and orchestra (January 26-27 featuring Orchestra Principal Viola Choong-Jin Chang) is a sort of travelogue: Italy as seen through the eyes of a Frenchman (by way of Lord Byron, on whose narrative poem it is based). And Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole, and Bolero count among the most eloquent and colorful evocations of Spain in all music. (“It’s important to have a mixture, as we always do, of lesser-known repertoire and the very well-known,” Yannick says.)

Yannick leads The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Théâtre du Champs-Élysées during the 2015 Tour of Europe. The theater was the location of the notorious riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Photo by Jan Regan

The City of Light and Music festival thus focuses on Paris as seen by its own people, as seen from the outside looking in, and as seen from the inside looking out. The 2016-17 season also includes a number of essential works from the French repertoire, including pieces already performed, such as Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture and Symphonie fantastique, Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 3, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Ravel’s complete Daphnis and Chloé and Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Métaboles by the recently deceased Henri Dutilleux (“one of the finest French composers of the 20th century,” Yannick says. Coming up will be Franck’s Symphony in D minor (February 2-4, with guest conductor Fabio Luisi).

While no single season can reflect the full weight of a city’s or a nation’s importance, the 2016-17 season will leave us with a palpable feel for Paris—a city “full of poetry and imagery,” in Yannick’s words. Above all the focus strives to celebrate Paris’ “openness toward creating a destination where artists from all backgrounds and cultures could work together,” says Rothman. “What resulted was a unique, unparalleled kind of movement for the arts, the likes of which the world had never seen.”

At the same time it would be almost impossible to overemphasize the impact this city has had on world culture, as British-American critic John Russell asserted in his 1960 book Paris. “Without Paris, Jefferson would not be Jefferson, Franklin would not be Franklin, Chopin would not be Chopin … Freud would not be Freud … Picasso would not be Picasso. That list could be remade a hundred times over, and in almost every domain of human activity. The role of Paris in all this is active, not passive. The people I have named did not ‘have a good time’ in Paris. Paris drove them to give of their best and defied them to fall short of it.”

Paul Horsley is performing arts editor for the Independent in Kansas City. Previously he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra; music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star; and professor of music history at Louisiana State University. He holds the Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University and has written extensively on music, dance, and theater. See his blog at kcindependent.com (click on Arts Corner).