An intriguing combination of a French work and a Russian work with a French title focusing on turn-of-the-century France were featured in the Detroit Symphony’s digital concert conducted by Enrique Mazzola. The maestro, who has been Music Director Designate at the Lyric Opera of Chicago this current season and is known as a bel canto opera and French repertoire specialist and interpreter of contemporary music, was clearly the star of the evening. This program, showcasing the enduring French love for dance, was an ideal fit for him, and the orchestra sounded very polished throughout.

Enrique Mazzola conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
© Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, a jewel of a work, was written for a small orchestra, and thus is a perfect choice of repertoire for a socially distanced ensemble. Originally written for solo piano when Ravel was studying with Fauré, this small but endearing masterpiece evokes the slow processional dance form prevalent in Europe during the Renaissance, which purportedly was being performed by the infanta in Velásquez’s famous painting. Ravel’s Basque-born, Madrid-raised mother influenced his passion for Spanish music, customs and sensibilities, and provided the connection between the composer and the painted depiction. 

The richly orchestrated piece alternates its main melody between the various instruments, starting with a beautifully played rendering by the solo French horn. Mazzola conducted with grace and deep feeling when called for, but not overly so, and he was very animated in the middle section. The blend of the wind instruments felt just right, and the strings sounded sweet and homogeneous.

Mazzola emphasized the all-important theatrical aspects of the L’Histoire du Soldat Suite as well as its complex rhythmic permutations and challenges. The piece, which today still sounds as contemporary as it did at its premiere in 1918, is uniquely designated to be “read, played and danced”– lue, jouée et dansée – by three actors and one or more dancers accompanied by an instrumental septet consisting of violin, string bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet or cornet, trombone and percussion. Stravinsky himself wrote a concert suite consisting of five numbers from the complete work before the full seven-performer suite, played here, became known.

Will Haapaniemi
© Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Mazzola’s luminous interpretation conjured images of the Belle Époque. One of the most engaging aspects of the work is the use of three dance forms: Tango, Valse and Ragtime, in which he showed special elegance and spirit. When his beat needed to be ultra-precise, he delivered adroitly.

The players’ togetherness was impressive, and each solo orchestra member also displayed his individual gifts. The violin is the epicenter of the story, and the soloist, Will Haapaniemi, performed extremely well. He articulated the rhythms clearly and played the exposed passages stylishly and well in tune, especially the three dances, jazzed up appropriately in the Ragtime. Other standouts were bassoonist Michael Ke Ma, who handled an infamously fiendish passage expertly, and clarinetist Jack Walters, who at times was a bit difficult to hear, but overall sounded excellent. The cornet playing was inconsistent at times. 

Mazzola’s beat was clear and concise: animated and rhythmically spot on and expansive when needed, and completely dependable at every moment for his players. That is a sign of a true professional.

This performance was reviewed from the DSO video stream