Ron Spigelman visited Tulsa to conduct Debussy’s “Images” and the other works at the concert. courtesy Phoenix Symphony

Tulsa Symphony performs transportive rendition of Debussy

Ron Spigelman led the symphony in performing compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Debussy.

There is an extreme beauty in seeing something performed live ⁠— it is, perhaps, one of the most intensely personal things an individual can experience. When the opportunity to go to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and see their symphony perform one of Claude Debussy’s most prolific compositions, “Images for Orchestra,” I couldn’t say no. Career conductor Ron Spigelman invites the listener to accompany him on a tour across Europe, describing the respective composer’s vision of the work. Of course, the symphony was performed spectacularly, which is to be expected considering the sheer dearth of talented players, but I would like to focus on the pieces and the reason behind their combined performance.

With the opening piece, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” Spigelman focused on the composer’s heavy influence on the developing symphonic style of Soviet Russia. Yes, you read that right, Rimsky-Korsakov was one of “The Five” Russian nationalist composers. However, the piece in question was inspired by the sights and smells of the Spanish nights, acting as the bright side of nationalism ⁠— the fascination in those deemed as “Other.” Rimsky-Korsakov was taken by the beauty of the Iberian peninsula and decided to attempt a transcription of those dazzling lights and memories into music.

The second piece of the night comes from a more recognizable, less communist name ⁠— Wolfgang Amadaus Mozart’s “Posthorn Symphony,” a collection of movements from the colossal “Serenade No. 9.” This serenade is a beast of a work, comprised of seven long movements; the symphony chose to play four of these movements, including the titular posthorn movement. Think of the posthorn in bugle terms, with a trumpet playing bright notes on shelf steps, blending with the vigorous strings, creating a triumphant air as one sees the buildings of Salzburg flash before their eyes, witnessing a graduation that passed several hundred years before, feeling an immense flair of hope in the face of a new horizon.

For transparency’s sake, let it be known that I have a special connection with one of Claude Debussy’s solo piano works, “Clair de Lune.” I simply love it. It occupies an intimate space of my heart, one of sadness, despair and hope, so seeing a performance of one of his pinnacle symphonic works was a transcendental experience. The piece performed, “Images pour orchestre,” colloquially known as “Images,” required eight years of Debussy’s life. He first wrote it as a solo piano work, then a duet, then expanded it to the full orchestra.

With the beginning of its creation focusing on a solo piano, the piece never loses that intimate feel, with rhythmic solos passing around the symphony, including jigs, folk songs and hymns from various European cultures. The first movement, “Gigues,” draws from traditional English jigs, but the movement actually relies on a deep underlying motif of suspense, pulling on a primal sense of mourning. In fact, the first movement was initially called the “Tragic Jig,” and Debussy struggled time and time again to finalize the name.

The third movement relies on French tunes, and while it is masterfully constructed, it is nothing compared to the movement that precedes it. This second movement is actually three submovements in a movement, referred to as a triptych in a triptych. Like the other two, this chunk borrows from a country’s unique culture, which happens to be Spain.

Debussy’s idea behind his “Images” was to create bright visuals in the mind of the listener. He, through his music, creates a paradoxical sentiment of salvation through the temporary death of the listener, calling one to offer up their individuality and become a part of the music, an idea that stands tall in the other two works. However, the composers do not force it. They are not brash or overwhelming, only offering, sometimes pleading, that the audience might relax and enjoy something unique and special. That’s the beauty of live performances — it is intensely intimate because no piece will be performed the same way twice. Details change, players think of different things, offer up other emotions in the sacrifice that is creating music, which affects the images poured out through the music.

The selection from Rimsky-Korsakov spoke to me in the form of a sunset, followed by a night time chase and then a magnificent, crisp sunrise. I could feel the cobblestones of an empty Spanish town beneath my feet, could hear the heartbeat of my prey as they attempt to skulk past me, as well as see the vibrant sunrise on the Iberian hills. During the Mozart piece, I was walking the streets of Salzburg, gazing on the white buildings, feeling the vibrancy of the Austrian air, breathing in a chill wind as the future shifted before me.
With Debussy, I simply felt alive.

Throughout the night, time disappeared and my mind drifted, following a pattern of notes, of somber horns and vibrant strings, ringing piccolos and mellow oboes, seeing the beauty of the world laid out before me. An exceptional performance of exceptional pieces by an exceptional symphony.

Post Author: Adam Walsh