Music with a French accent

Joshua Roman
Omaha World-Herald

By Todd von Kampen

Paying a musical visit to early 20th-century France on Armistice Day was truly an inspired programming choice for the Omaha Symphony, even though guest conductor Alastair Willis never indicated a linkage during the first of his two Masterworks concerts Friday night.

The program's title of "Daphnis & Chloe," taken from its luscious climactic ballet suite by Maurice Ravel, likewise doesn't suggest a World War I-era connection. But those who attend today's 8 p.m. performance at the Holland Performing Arts Center may find an extra layer of meaning in the dates when these four French works were composed.

This exact program could have been presented in Paris on Nov. 11, 1923, the fifth anniversary of what America now calls Veterans Day. It would have featured one ominous and one voyeuristic work newly written in that year, a masterful cello concerto then nearly 50 years old — and, finally, an Impressionist classic written in 1912, barely two years before French and Belgian fields began to flood with blood.

If you go to the symphony tonight, ponder the ensemble's splendid execution of the aural daybreak and youthful passions in the suite that Ravel drew from his full-length ballet "Daphnis et Chloe" (the French title for the Greek myth).

Then consider that Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Ravel to write the ballet for his Paris-based Ballets Russes troupe, presented it in London (amid highly public criticism by Ravel) in early June 1914. By the end of that month, an Austrian crown prince had been assassinated and the detonation of Europe's elegant yet brittle facade was at hand. Ravel's masterpiece becomes a monument to a lost time.

The symphony program opens with a terrifying depiction of an accelerating steam train in Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231," the first of the 1923 works. America's musical impressions of trains tend toward the heroic and romantic. Not so with Honegger's piece, which grows ever more threatening as it depicts the engine nearing full speed. Might Honegger have recalled other products of industry — namely the lumbering tanks and thundering cannon that had so recently trampled his native land?

No such dark impressions can be drawn from Edouard Lalo's "Cello Concerto in D minor," written at the height of French Romanticism in 1877. And yet the older members of a Paris Jazz Age/Roaring '20s audience might have heard its confident vigor and beautifully flowing cello lines and asked themselves: Where did that world go?

Cellist Joshua Roman, one of the bright young stars on the early 21st-century orchestral scene, presented his solo passages Friday night with intense ease. As the ensemble powerfully proclaimed Lalo's themes, Roman's instrument spoke softly in reply. When the symphony turned to the lilting tones of Lalo's ancestral Spain, Roman responded with the outspoken passion of the flamenco dancer.

The concert's second act paid homage to the Ballets Russes, with a suite from Francis Poulenc's 1923 ballet "Les Biches" (The Does) preceding the Ravel finale. Willis, the guest conductor, had the orchestra perform several excerpts of the Poulenc as he described the depiction by Diaghilev's troupe of three men carrying on a series of naughty love affairs. Once more, Willis took the listeners to the world of lost innocence that followed the Great War.