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Debussy's influence reflects through music of the 20th century

February 14, 2001

Debussy's influence reflects through music of the 20th century



This weekend the Maryland Symphony Orchestra will perform one of the true masterpieces of the 20th century, Claude Debussy's "La Mer."

In many ways, the influence of Debussy has extended further than that of his younger contemporaries, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Never a stickler to "lifeless rules invented by pedants," Debussy avoided the heavily intellectualized forms established in the 19th century and found inspiration in the paintings and poetry of his time. He sought to suggest rather than to declare in his music. He considered the art of music not so much a language to be learned, but rather "all colors and all rhythms."

"La Mer" is symphonic in its outline, with the two large-scale outer movements framing a scherzo-like middle movement. The triumphant return of musical material from the first movement at the conclusion of the third and final movement serves to draw the whole work together. Yet, "La Mer" sounds spontaneous from beginning to end. Debussy accomplishes this remarkable feat by a constant variation of rhythm and harmonies.

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"Four Sea Interludes" by Benjamin Britten opens the program. It originally served as short instrumental prologues, or preludes between acts and scenes in Britten's opera, "Peter Grimes." Each interlude is a miniature musical seascape meant to establish or foreshadow the dramatic action in the opera. Though not directly influenced by Debussy's compositional style, Britten's teachers were. These depictions of the North Sea owe much of their power and profundity to the language established earlier in the century by the French master.

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra is pleased to present Baltimore native David Hardy as guest artist. Serving first as assistant principal and now as principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., Hardy enjoyed a close professional relationship with Mstislav Rostropovich, the orchestra's former music director and conductor. Maestro Rostropovich is also world-renowned for his artistry on the cello, and it is a work commissioned by him that Hardy will perform this weekend. The cello concerto, "Tout un monde lointain" (All a world far away) by Henri Dutilleux was inspired by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, and each of the five movements bears the title and a quotation from the poet's great work, "Les Fleurs du mal" (Flowers of Evil). The movements of the concerto flow one into the next, in keeping with the composer's belief that pauses between movements impede "music's power to enchant."

There is no question that Dutilleux's musical language will sound new to most listeners. Yet, the idea of established conventional forms being replaced by a constantly developing musical process by which initial material is renewed and transformed is in keeping with the ideas that Debussy had put forth nearly 70 years earlier. The cello concerto is an exploration of the exotic and the sensual. Like many of his other works, Dutilleux explores the magical potential of the musical soundscape. This is music to sit back and experience rather than grab onto. The solo cello is not so much the virtuoso displaying his wares for all to judge, but rather the magician and poet, leading the listener into deeper mysteries only music can express.

The music of the 20th century has moved from enchantment to confrontation and back again. This weekend's program will give the audience a taste of this musical journey.

Elizabeth Schulze is music director of Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

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