On Friday, January 31, the Chamber Orchestra at St. Matthew’s presents “A Night on the Boulevard Saint-Germain” with music of Ravel, Debussy, Bizet and Françaix. Dwayne S. Milburn conducts.

Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, was inspired by poetry of the same name by French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé.  Published in 1876, the bare-ly disguised eroticism of the poetry caused a furor in Parisian cultural circles.  Mallarmé praised Debussy’s efforts after its 1894 premiere, saying it extended the emotion of his poem while providing it with a warmer background.  Debussy regarded the music as “a very free illustration and in no way as a synthesis of the poem.”

Jean Françaix was a formidable child prodigy who began composing at age six in a style heavily influenced by Maurice Ravel.  A prolific composer he was known to begin a new work almost before he’d finished its predecessor and his compositions embraced almost every major genre, including concertos, symphonies, operas, and ballets.  His Six Preludes from 1963, is a light and vibrant set of short works that fully explores the col-ors of the orchestra and includes charming solos for several principal players. The work is brimming with the energy of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in whose many cafés Françaix was often to be found sipping coffee or an aperitif.

In 1913, the first publication of the complete works of Mallarmé caused a disagreement between Ravel and Debussy.  Both composers respected each other and deeply revered Mallarmé.  However, since the premiere of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Debussy had been seen as the main aspirant to the poet’s legacy.  The news that Ravel had received permission to set some of Mallaremé’s verse to music, irritated Debussy, who confided to friends that the “Mallarmé-Ravel story isn’t funny.”  In the end, both composers set three of the poet’s works.  Of the two, Ravel’s efforts are more adventurous.  Rather than limit himself to piano, he set the Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallaremé for soprano, flutes, clarinets, piano, and strings. The set vividly evokes the sensual nature of words that comprise its text. Soprano Graycen Gardner is the featured soprano.

Like Jean Françaix, Georges Bizet came from a musical family that soon recognized and encouraged the growth of his musical gifts.  He was accepted into the Paris Conservatory at age 10 and studied with Charles Gounod, a composer whose own reputation was on the rise.  In 1855 Gounod gave the 16-year old Bizet the assignment to compose his own symphony.  After a month of work, Bizet completed the Symphony in C.  Because Bizet considered it little more than the result of an assignment, the symphony lay for-gotten in the archives of the Paris Conservatory for 80 years until it was discovered during an inventory of the Conservatory’s Bizet collection.  It was premiered in 1935 by which time the fame of the pupil had far surpassed that of his teacher. The work has been a part of the standard repertoire ever since.

Music Guild concerts take place at the architecturally stunning and acoustically opulent St. Matthew’s Church, 1031 Bienveneda Ave., Pacific Palisades. For tickets ($35) and more information, visit MusicGuildOnline.org or call (310) 573-7422.

Submitted by Thomas Neenan

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