This morning the Boston Symphony rehearsed its second tour program, which included La Mer by Debussy. For me La Mer is, along with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, among the greatest symphonic works of the 20th century. It is simply a dazzling display of virtuoso orchestral composing, and each of the three movements is a gem in itself.
The very first time I performed La Mer was as a member of the BSO in the late ’70s with its former music director, Erich Leinsdorf. Because it was my first experience with the piece it left a lasting impression. Leinsdorf was an amazing score studier and intellectual. He knew every detail and his execution was as clear as a bell. On the other hand his interpretations could be a little bit on the dry, impersonal side, and I felt that someone like Charles Dutoit, who is a master at achieving just the right sound for the French repertoire, had a more compelling feel for the piece. This week’s performance, with music director Andris Nelsons, is shaping up to be a brilliant tour de force for the orchestra and I’m pretty sure the European audiences will be duly impressed.
Nevertheless, every time I’ve played La Mer with the BSO since then, I can’t help but compare whoever is conducting to that picture of Leinsdorf I still have in my head, and not just because of the musical connection. Another reason is that the BSO still uses the same parts for La Mer as when I joined in 1975, which were old even then! If you look carefully at the top of the page, you’ll even see the dates of some early performances:
Out of curiosity, today I asked the BSO librarian, Wilson Ochoa, if he knew exactly when the BSO bought those parts. I expected his response to be, “I have no idea,” or “Gee, that’s an interesting question. I’ll have to do some research.” But instead, he said, “Take a look at this,” and turned to the preceding page of the part:
Here you see the dates of two performances (plus the performance lengths): One was in 1928, and the earlier one in 1924! These parts are almost a century old! Just imagine all my predecessors, all my earlier colleagues, who sat in front of that music and kept that music alive. It gives me a chill just to think about it.
You might also notice a few doodles on the page. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in orchestral parts. Sometimes rehearsals drag on and conductors talk more than good sense would dictate. I think one interesting thing about these caricatures is that they all show the left profile, which would be the line of sight of the conductor from someone sitting on first stand. Even though the doodles might have come long after the dates, it does look like the doodles were done with the same pencil as the dates. Maybe.
I checked with Marc Mandel, the director of BSO publications, to find out who conducted La Mer on those dates to see if the doodles were of that conductor. It turns out that for both performances the conductor was the orchestra’s dominating music director, Serge Koussevitzky, and Koussy looked nothing like those doodles. One interesting fact I turned up in my own research, however, was that Maurice Ravel, the “other” great French Impressionist, conducted the BSO from January 12-14 of 1928! This is a profile of Maurice Ravel, as would be seen by the first stand of first violins:
I should note that Ravel did not conduct La Mer in Boston. He conducted his own music: Rhapsody Espagnol, La Valse, and song cycle, Sheherazade. So here’s my theory, based on the following facts: Maestro Koussevitzky considered the Boston Symphony his personal instrument. In those days before union contracts, he essentially rehearsed as long as he wanted. He even wanted the musicians to live in the building across the street from Symphony Hall so that they could be available whenever he wanted to rehearse.
You’ll notice that there are two other caricatures on the same page as “Ravel.” I’m thinking that one unseasonably warm day in April, near the end of a long, intense afternoon rehearsal with Maestro Koussevitzky, a creative, slightly bored violinist (there are known to have been a few), said to himself, “I need to stay awake,” and sketched two drawings of friends or conductors. His equally bored stand partner said, “Hey, that’s pretty good. I’ve had enough Debussy to last me the rest of my life. Think you can draw Ravel?” So he got to work. You’ll also notice that the caricature in question has no hair and Ravel had plenty of it. Here’s my thinking: When you draw someone, what’s the last thing that you add? Why, the hair, of course. So I imagine that just as our artist/musician was about to put the finishing touches on his masterpiece, Maestro Koussevitzky, who had been reprimanding the string basses (he was a bass player) suddenly turned to the first violins to give them similar treatment and caught our violinist in the act. He might have said to our violinist, “Just what do you think you’re doing?” and gave him the hairy eyeball. To which our violinist replied, “Just putting in some bowings, Maestro,” and quickly turned the page. Some traditions never change.
What’s your theory?
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