Saved events

Sinfonia of London/John Wilson

John Wilson conducting

John Wilson’s revivified Sinfonia of London make their Barbican debut with a typically unorthodox programme.

The Italian theatrical tradition of the commedia dell’arte has given us enduring stock characters such as the clowns Harlequin and Pierrot, but rather less well-known is Harlequin’s servant, Scapino, a rascal who arranges his master’s amorous exploits – plus a few of his own. As John Wilson explains: ‘We get the word “escapade” from scapino and I think that tells us a lot. Walton captures the two sides of Scapino’s nature in his overture: the boisterous and the romantic. The central interlude which depicts Scapino a-wooing is some of Walton’s most ravishing music.’ Walton’s comedy overture was written in 1941 for large orchestral forces, which were trimmed down for the revised 1950 version.

A rather more sinister character emerged in the Arabian Nights in the form of the Sultan Shahryar. He was in the habit of killing his brides each morning until he was outwitted by the Sultana Scheherazade, who distracted him with a new story each evening, cunningly ending on a cliffhanger. After 1,001 nights he was persuaded to kick his deadly habit. Ravel first turned to the subject in an overture of 1898, returning to it five years later in a highly evocative song-cycle, full of voluptuous contours and exotic colours. The poems he set were by Tristan Klingsor (the Wagnerian pseudonym of Léon Leclère): the two were both part of an artistic group called Les Apaches, at whose meetings Ravel first heard Klingsor’s verses.

In ‘Asie’ Ravel sets the scene with shimmering strings and an oboe solo articulating quintessentially Eastern intervals, after which the mezzo-soprano languidly expresses the desire to see every exotic sight imaginable. Ravel the man could be reserved and enigmatic, but he relishes these seductive poems. As John Wilson puts it: ‘Ravel rarely reveals his inner soul in his music; there is often a veneer of meticulously crafted artifice. That’s not to say he isn’t sincere – far from it – he’s on record as saying the artificial is so much better than the real (or words to that effect). And he takes his fairy tales seriously and we are all the richer for it.’ In ‘La flûte enchantée’, a young girl hears a bittersweet, languorous flute serenade, played by her lover, while in ‘L’indifferent’ it is unclear whether the desired youth with eyes ‘as gentle as a girl’s’ is being addressed by a man or a woman – an ambiguity treated with gentle subtlety by Ravel.

Gershwin visited Paris in 1928, spending time with fellow composer Alban Berg and acquiring taxi-horns and Debussy scores to take home. An American in Paris was written the same year, a tone-poem described by Gershwin as: ‘really a rhapsodic ballet – it is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted’. He added that his intention was ‘to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere’. John Wilson hails Gershwin’s ‘Good Tunes (tunes with a capital T), a personal, jazz-tinged harmonic language, an inventive sense of rhythm and an orchestral palette drawn from the sounds of his own time and place.

Dutilleux went to study in Paris in 1933 and developed a style that embraced influences from Ravel and Messiaen to jazz. Ravel’s use of bitonality (two keys at once) in Boléro may have influenced Dutilleux’s 1953 ballet score Le Loup (‘The Wolf’), described by John Wilson as ‘a wonderfully melodic, harmonically rich and thrillingly dramatic score. It falls right into your lap on first hearing and get better every time you listen to it. What more could you ask from a piece of music?’

Ravel’s musical personality was formed, in his own words, from ‘the clicking and roaring of my father’s machines’ (Joseph Ravel was an industrialist and inventor) and ‘the Spanish folk songs sung to me by my mother’, who was Basque. A bolero is a Spanish dance style which Ravel married with a mechanical aesthetic; he explained that ‘my Boléro owes its inception to a factory’ and longed to ‘stage it with a vast industrial works in the background’.

Ravel’s longtime friend Gustave Samazeuilh gave a vivid account of the conception of Boléro: ‘I had the delightful experience of seeing Ravel in a yellow dressing gown and scarlet bathing cap playing the theme of Boléro with one finger and saying to me, “Mme Rubinstein has commissioned a ballet from me. Don’t you think this tune has something insistent about it? I’m going to try and repeat it a good few times without any development while gradually building it up …”’

The dancer Ida Rubinstein had asked Ravel to orchestrate Albéniz’s great piano suite Iberia for a ballet – but copyright laws prevented it and Ravel instead produced an original composition, Boléro. Of the ballet version (much more of a rarity than the ubiquitous concert piece), John Wilson says: ‘Compared to the standard edition of the concert version, the 1928 ballet score contains slightly altered note lengths in both the melody and the accompanimental figures, extra percussion (triangle and castanets) in the last statement of the tune and, most notably, a pair of drummers who alternate with each statement of the theme and are placed on either side of the orchestra.’

© Joanna Wyld

Programme and performers

William Walton Scapino
Maurice Ravel Shéhérazade
1 Asie
2 La flûte enchantée
3 L’indifférent
George Gershwin An American in Paris

Henri Dutilleux Le Loup
Tableau 1 La baraque foraine: Les mystifications
Tableau 2 La chambre nuptiale: La Belle et la Bête
Tableau 3 La forêt d’hiver: Danse d’amour –
Danse de mort
Maurice Ravel Boléro (original ballet version)

Sinfonia of London
John Wilson conductor
Alice Coote mezzo-soprano


Artist biographies