What: The China Philharmonic Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 12
Where: Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $45-$79 general, $22.50-$39.50 students, available at http://www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787
A Chinese orchestra, touring the West Coast with a French violin soloist, performing showy European classics, anchored by Ravel’s highly repetitive (and perpetually popular) setting of a sexy Spanish dance theme, “Bolero.”
That’s the program to be featured at the Mondavi Center on Tuesday, April 12, when the China Philharmonic Orchestra, performing under conductor Long Yu, comes to town.
And thereby hangs a tale.
The tour — which also stops in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Diego and elsewhere — originally was to have featured the Orquesta Nacional de España. However, last year the Spanish economy tanked, the Spanish government’s funding for the Orquesta Nacional tour dried up, and several American presenters (including the Mondavi Center) were left scrambling.
But conductor Long and the China Philharmonic stepped into the breach and saved the day: They are performing the same concert dates, with the same soloist — violinist Renaud Capuçon — featuring largely the same program, which explains the Chinese conductor and orchestra playing music based on a Spanish dance, as interpreted by a French Impressionist composer.
And why not? The piece is well-known the world over.
Long has been here before — he conducted another Chinese orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony, in a concert at the Mondavi Center in 2009. Long Yu was born in Shanghai in 1964. He became the founding director of the China Philharmonic in 2000, when the ensemble was formed in the aftermath of the disbanding of the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra. The China Philharmonic has toured abroad on several occasions, and recorded albums for the Deutsche Grammophon label.
Capuçon was born in 1976, and studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2002, and his New York recital debut followed in 2007. This season, he’s appearing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and elsewhere.
For his appearance at the Mondavi Center with the China Philharmonic, Capuçon will play the First Violin Concerto of Max Bruch — a piece he performed last year with the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding, a conductor who visited Mondavi last October. Capuçon also has played the same concerto in Paris and Caracas under Gustavo Dudamel, now conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Capuçon plays a 1737 Guarneri instrument, which once belonged to Isaac Stern. He records for Virgin Classics, and his recent albums include a disk of Mozart violin concertos. Music runs in his family: Capuçon’s brother Gautier is a well-known cellist; they sometimes perform together.
The program for the concert at Mondavi’s Jackson Hall includes several brief, tried-and-true crowd-pleasers, including the “Roman Carnival” Overture by Berlioz, the “Polovstian March” from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” and Puccini’s “Preludio siemfonico.”
Ravel’s “Boléro,” which typically runs 15 minutes, is the piece on the program that almost everybody recognizes. Ravel wrote it in 1928 for Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, who is today remembered as much for her striking appearance — memorialized on canvas by several notable painters — as her work on stage.
Her interpretation of the music — set in a Spanish tavern, with a voluptuous dancer suggestively whirling atop a table, leading to violence — is said to have caused a near riot at the premiere.
“Boléro” famously features a brief, sensuous theme, underscored by a steady drumbeat that grows ever louder. As the theme repeats, it is passed from section to section in the orchestra, gradually building to a wild, uninhibited crescendo.
It’s deliberately uncomplicated (Ravel wanted it to be “uniform throughout in its melody”), but even those who regard the piece as being a little TOO simple usually allow that Ravel does lovely things with musical colors.
Soon after its premiere, “Boléro” became Ravel’s best-known piece — a distinction that apparently didn’t sit well with the composer, much as some present-day pop stars experience some embarrassment when they become principally famous for a quickly recorded novelty song, rather than their more serious efforts.
After “Boléro” was taken up by orchestras all over the world, Ravel is said to have told fellow composer Arthur Honegger “I’ve written only one masterpiece, ‘Boléro.’ Unfortunately, there is no music in it.”
But Ravel never attempted to withdraw the piece. He most likely realized that too many people had heard it, and orchestras would simply go on performing it if he was foolish enough to try to take it back.
Audiences, from the 1930s through the present day, can’t seem to get enough of “Boléro.” It continues to be widely performed.
Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto is also that composer’s best-known piece. Bruch also wrote three operas, three symphonies, eight other works for violin and orchestra, and more. His “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra is still performed, as is his “Kol nidrei” for cello and orchestra.
But it is Bruch’s First Violin Concerto in G minor, dating from the late 1860s, that has kept the composer’s name before the public. Bruch was only 28 when he composed this work, and unlike Ravel and “Boléro,” Bruch reportedly remained proud of this concerto throughout his life.
But he also expressed some regret that the First Concerto overshadowed his other two violin concertos, of which he was also quite proud, even though they are performed far less often than the First.
Christian Baldini, conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, will give a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, discussing the music on the program.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.