A glorious evening of French music

Special to the Gazette

An exquisite evening of French music was the theme of the Virginia Symphony's recent program, "Pictures at a French Exhibition," in the Ferguson Center. Based on an exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Chrysler Museum, the concept and selections were thoughtful and abundantly appealing.

JoAnn Falletta opened with a shimmering rendering of one of Debussy's most immediately recognizable works, "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." Inspired by a Mallarme poem, it's popularly known as the ballet setting for Nijinsky's somewhat erotic, yet beautifully expressive, dance, as well as its use in films. The performance was sensitive and visually musical.

Debussy was again represented with his "Nocturnes" for orchestra and the Women of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus. As "Prelude" was inspired by a poem, so too was "Nocturnes" inspired by a painting of the same name by Whistler. Consisting of three movements, "Nuages," "Fetes," and "Sirenes," the work is an auditory delight that inspires visual imagery. Much like the aspect of chiaroscuro in painting and its study in contrasts, so too does "Nocturnes" play with the ideas of light casting imagery in clouds ("Nuages"), as well as adding swirling colors and imagery to festivals ("Fetes") and the dreamy impact of moonlight on water ("Sirenes"). In the latter, the women's voices blended alluringly with the layers of sublime orchestral sound for mesmerizing impact.

The remaining orchestral work was Roussel's "Bacchus et Ariadne Suite No. 2." Written as a two-part ballet score, it was, in fact, that very score presented in an orchestral setting. It's based on the Greek mythological tale of Ariadne who gets dumped by Theseus and is saved and exalted by Bacchus, and a jolly good time being had by all.

With an additional nod to Debussy, Roussel's output was largely influenced by the luxurious, impressionistic orchestrations of Debussy, along with the rhythmic intricacies and compositional colors of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the latter two in notable evidence in "Suite No. 2." Also apparent in the flowing and rhythmic structure and textures was its base foundation in dance. Visually, one could not help but see choreography unfold as the tale was musically told. From the opening awakening scene of Ariadne and its soft and wistful sounds, through the magic of a kiss between Bacchus and Ariadne, to the concluding and gloriously devised bacchanal and coronation of Ariadne, the rhythmic, lyrical, sweeping, building-in-intensity score was brilliantly performed, again illustrating the exceptional quality of this fine orchestra and Falletta.

Adding to the French flavored fare was the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2, considered his most popular concerto. Doing the keyboard honors was Alon Goldstein, a pianist whose career has found him playing with many of the more esteemed conductors and orchestras and chamber ensembles around the world.

Given his stunning performance here, it's easily understood why he's in demand. Without keyboard histrionics found among many virtuoso types, Goldstein simply sat down at the instrument and proceeded to dazzle the audience with his delicate and powerful touch, his heightened sense of lyricism, and masterful control. No pretense, just precision and perfection. The audience went wild following the closing and dizzying flourish of notes in the tarantella. He wowed us with an encore from Ginastera's highly rhythmic, pyrotechnic "Danzas Argentinas Op. 2," adding fireworks to another superbly played Virginia Symphony program.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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