Leonard Slatkin led the New York Philharmonic with flautist Robert Langevin in a concert featuring Copland’s El Salón México, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (orchestrated by Marius Constant), Boléro, and the New York Philharmonic première of Christopher Rouse’s Flute Concerto.

Leonard Slatkin © Donald Dietz
Leonard Slatkin
© Donald Dietz

The program began with El Salón México, springing into life with a rhythmic fanfare before plunging into a pool of playful drunkenness, brought to you by the low woodwinds. Deafening bass drum hits, humorous clarinet licks, and dancing strings provided impressions of characters who frequented the nocturnal hotspot for which the piece is named. Laced with Mexican folk music, the piece provided a sense of exotic escapism, and provided a colorful start to the concert.

Being featured on a program with Copland and Ravel would be a nightmare for many contemporary composers. It’s no easy task to stand in the company of these giants, but for Christopher Rouse, this company is well deserved. His Flute Concerto was the star of the program, earning him and soloist Robert Langevin a standing ovation. The piece, consisting of five attaca movements, has notes of Celtic influence, opening and closing with melodic solo flute lines that float over densely cloud-like strings. After an abrupt change of tempo, a new energy is unleashed. The orchestra bustles with complicated polyrhythms as the flute scampers around them. The sound is fresh, rhythmically gripping, and surprisingly tonal.

Though the piece isn’t explicitly programmatic, there is an overarching sense of journey inherent in the music. The movements unfold like scenes in a drama, changing mood and texture as the concerto develops, and leading us forward to a predestined conclusion. Our protagonist on this journey was soloist Robert Langevin, who played with startling depth. He brought a song-like tone to the soft movements, spinning the music with beautifully contoured phrases similar to paintings with long brush strokes. In the virtuosic fast sections, the notes poured out of his instrument with vivacious ease. Thankfully, there was no overuse of advanced flute techniques in this piece; rather, the music stayed grounded by the momentum of the orchestra.

The second half of the concert was entirely Ravel, beginning with an entertaining mini-lecture given by Leonard Slatkin on Marius Constant’s orchestration of Ravel’s classic piano suite Gaspard de la nuit, based on the literary work by Aloysius Bertrand. This educational introduction gave many listeners new knowledge about the challenges and tricks of the orchestration process, and I firmly advocate for more of this type of audience engagement.

Gaspard was performed with brilliant balance. In the first movement, “Ondine,” the orchestra shimmered with a water-like luminosity. The second movement, “Le Gibet” was laced with a dark iciness, brought out by repeating chimes. Constant’s orchestrations sound remarkably Ravelian in these first two movements. It is only “Scarbo,” the closing section, that feels more modern in its frenetic sound.

The concert closed with Boléro, Ravel's great study in orchestration. This familiar ticket-seller gave the audience an excuse to tap their toes and leave the concert hall humming. Memorable as it may be, the piece felt like it was pulled out of the performers’ back pocket to complete an evening. Once the engine was started, the music propelled itself, requiring minimal conducting or shaping. It looked and sounded easy, and the audience felt it.

At the end of the day, the Rouse Flute Concerto was the highlight of the concert. Its soaring melodies, stunning rhythms, and emotional gravity more than earned it a place at the table with Ravel and Copland.