Sir Andrew Litton took center stage at last weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, heard Saturday night at Orchestra Hall. He conducted and soloed in a performance of the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel. It’s a showpiece, and Litton made the most of it.
The opening, “Prelude a la Nuit (Prelude to the Night),” has a dynamic range from pianissimo to mezzo forte, maintaining a brooding, haunting quality. The soft passages revealed stunning orchestral clarity, but the ensemble occasionally swelled too loud, obscuring Litton’s sensitive piano.
His virtuosity was clearly on display in the Presto finale, which flies by at breakneck speed, ending with a dazzling flourish.
As an encore, Litton performed an arrangement of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” by jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson. His stylish reading demonstrated just how much the jazz great had been influenced by Ravel.
The program’s most interesting feature was a pairing of two tone poems of the sea: Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” from his opera “Peter Grimes,” and Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” They were a study in contrasts.
The “Four Sea Interludes” are some of Britten’s most lyrical music, but there is a darkness to even the lightest moments. Britten was more concerned with the sea’s reflection of his opera’s characters than on the conjuring of nature. Debussy is more actually programmatic, which is ironic, given that his work was based more on art about the sea than any experience of the sea itself.
Britten’s “Dawn” does not depict a joyous sunrise, but the lonely desolation of an expanse of ocean. Debussy’s “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea” is much more delicate. The orchestra seemed to shimmer like light reflected off the sea’s ever-moving surface.
Britten’s “Storm” was a furious tumult, with the sections of the orchestra pounding against each other. It seemed more like a depiction of the storm in the title character’s soul than a representation of nature. Debussy’s “Dialogue of Wind and Sea” was subtler, building up and receding, never reaching the intensity of Britten, but equally complex.
Litton and the orchestra handled both styles perfectly idiomatically. Each was moving in its own way. And each was set into greater relief by their juxtaposition.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.