Thursday, September 24, 2009

A first-rate second-rate composer

The Richmond Symphony will usher itself into and out of its first season in the renovated Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage with works by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns: the Bacchanale from his opera "Samson et Delila" in the opening concerts (Sept. 26-27), his "Organ" Symphony (No. 3) in the closing concerts (May 15-16).

This might seem a somewhat eccentric choice for alpha and omega placement in the orchestra’s program schedule. Maybe not, though, in a celebratory season in this particular space. Saint-Saëns’ music sounds like the Carpenter Theatre looks. (If I were booking a bacchanalia, it would be my venue of choice.)

Saint-Saëns knew his craft, knew how to engage an audience, and knew how to write a good tune. But musicians and critics tend to consign him to the class of first-rate second-rate composers, alongside the likes of Max Bruch or Alexander Borodin.

Like them, Saint-Saëns was a product of a distinctive musical culture, spoke its accumulated dialects fluently, and manipulated its musical materials with ingenuity and technical mastery. His music draws on the long French tradition, from Lully to Rameau to Berlioz, of colorful timbres and vivid representational effects. Saint-Saëns was also deeply grounded in classical form and style; the frameworks of his concertos and symphonies were modeled after Mozart’s and Beethoven’s. At the least, Saint-Saëns was a first-rate French classical-romanticist.

Born in 1835, the year Donizetti’s "Lucia di Lammermoor" premiered, Saint-Saëns lived long enough (until 1921) to hear Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" and Ravel’s "La Valse;" and was active as a virtuoso pianist and composer, and an attentive listener, through most of those eventful years.

Saint-Saëns was one of first composers of film music – in 1908 he scored an 18-minute silent film, "L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise" – and film-makers have not been shy about exploiting his music. The "Samson et Delila" Bacchanale cycled through countless cartoon soundtracks to become the stereotypical belly-dance music. "The Swan" and other pieces from his "Carnival of the Animals" similarly made their way into the popular musical vernacular. The spooky atmospherics at the opening of the "Organ" Symphony echo through horror-movie scores, and its exuberantly resolute finale morphed into the theme song for the Australian animal adventure "Babe." The big tune in the finale of the Fourth Piano Concerto begs for use as the theme of a swashbuckler or super-hero movie. (Maybe it has been and I missed it.)

Late in life, Saint-Saëns came to personify, to younger French composers, an outdated, hidebound traditionalism, which they were eager to discredit and overturn. One of those younger fry was Claude Debussy, who as a young critic was a bête noire of Saint-Saëns, and subsequently matured into a first-rate first-rate composer. Respectable critical opinion has accepted his verdict on Saint-Saëns, more out of respect for Debussy, I suspect, than disrespect for Saint-Saëns. For a lot of highbrows, the old man's music is a guilty sensual pleasure.

It will be a treat to hear the Bacchanale, as it was when the symphony played it 30 years ago in its first tryout of the old Loew’s movie palace as a concert space; and the "Organ" Symphony can be an spectacular experience, a total immersion in sound and dramatic gesture. I look forward to them with pleasure, and without guilt.