Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Conspirare Symphonic Choir and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, with Mela Dailey, (soprano), and Peter Bay (conductors) at Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, Texas, November 21, 2015.
This all-French program by the Austin Symphony was planned well over a year before the terrorist outrage of November 13, 2015, in Paris, France. Prefaced by a few well-chosen words from conductors Craig Hella Johnson and Peter Bay and a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise, the concert went ahead as planned on the 21st of November. Music often expresses our deepest emotions when words fail us and so it was on this occasion. Poulenc’s Gloria spoke to our need for spiritual solace and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé reminded us of the enduring greatness of French culture.
As it happens, the original manuscript of Daphnis et Chloé resides in the vaults of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, part of the Carlton Lake Collection. Carlton Lake (1915-2006) was an American, who built one of the finest collections in the world of manuscripts and books by French writers and composers. Late in life, Lake became a consultant and then executive curator of the Ransom and ultimately gifted his precious collection to the Center.
Ravel’s ballet score Daphnis et Chloé was a wonder when first performed in Paris (1912) and remains one of the greatest orchestral pieces ever written. An impressionist masterpiece filled with page after page of beautiful sounds and colours, it was highly original for its time and remains a virtual reference book for students of orchestration.
I have been attending concerts by the Austin Symphony conducted by Peter Bay for about 10 years now, but nothing they have done together up to this point came close to what they achieved in this performance of Daphnis et Chloé. Peter Bay had mastered every detail of the score, and his musicians had clearly done their homework, but beyond that, conductor and orchestra captured both the long lines of the languid episodes and the bacchanalian ecstasy of the climaxes. One of the high points in Daphnis et Chloé is the extraordinary flute solo in the Pantomime section. In this performance, Rebecca Garfield played superbly, with expert assistance from her colleagues in the section. The brass playing was remarkably precise and often thrilling. And what can one say about the Conspirare Symphonic Choir? What an inspiration it was for Ravel to use a wordless chorus at several crucial moments in the score, not least of all in the wild dance at the end of the piece. Conductor Peter Bay built the excitement inexorably, and the choir gave him everything he asked for – and more!
Craig Hella Johnson is the music director of the sizeable (150 members) Conspirare Symphonic Choir and its smaller professional component, Conspirare “Company of Voices”, which is surely one of the finest chamber choirs in the world. Johnson took the podium in the first half of the concert to lead a performance of Poulenc’s Gloria, and like the Ravel, it was a memorable experience. The Gloria dates from 1961 and recalls the Apollonian style of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. It also looks forward to works like the Chichester Psalms of Leonard Bernstein. What these works have in common is emotional restraint coupled with elements of popular music, particularly in matters of melody and rhythm. Some of the most beautiful melodies in the Gloria are given to the soprano soloist, and on this occasion, Austin’s own Mela Dailey soared effortlessly over the accompanying chorus and orchestra. Ms. Dailey is a widely admired solo artist, a leading member of Conspirare, radio host of Icons of Broadway, and Mrs. Peter Bay.
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