The Naxos Interview: Laurence Vittes talks with Leonard Slatkin, part 1: Antar
April 26, 2017
One of Naxos’ featured releases for April is the newest volume in its series of Ravel’s music for orchestra, performed by the Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
The main work on Volume Five is the world première recording of Antar, the incidental music that Ravel compiled and composed for Chekri Ganem’s play about an Arabic poet warrior and his true love, in Paris in 1910. Busy at the time with other work, Ravel re-orchestrated selections from Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Antar and opera Mlada, and added interpolations of his own music. Now Leonard Slatkin and his team have reconstructed the score and commissioned a narrative retelling by the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf.
In a 2014 article Maalouf commented, “The warrior-poet Antar and his beloved Abla are, in a way, the Romeo and Juliet of the Arab world…Unlike my librettos for Kaija Saariaho, the text came after the music. I listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, took advice from Leonard Slatkin…and wrote my own version of the legend by studying the score and letting myself be guided by the emotions suggested by the music. Most of the text is spoken, above the music…”
The second work on the new CD is Ravel’s ravishing song cycle Shéhérazade, which reflects Ravel’s youthful fascination with the exotic now coming under Debussy’s influence.
I spoke to Slatkin earlier this month in Detroit.
LV: What attracted you to this surreal possibility?
Leonard Slatkin: We knew about the compilation of Rimsky-Korsakov pieces Ravel had put together as incidental music for a play named Antar. But Ravel was writing Daphnis and Chloé, so he didn’t have time to write original music. His solution was very elegant. Exoticism was all the rage in France and the Antar story, about a 7th-century warrior and poet, was exotic like Schéhérazade. So, Ravel simply went to Rimsky’s second symphony, which had evolved over time into a symphonic poem called Antar, like Scheherazade, and then he constructed the music to fit the scenario of the play.
LV: Ravel compiled a lot of music!
Leonard Slatkin: It’s a long play, so the music is on the long side as well. In addition to Antar, Ravel added music from one of Rimsky’s operas, plus a couple of songs and some original music of his own to fill the time. The question was, how do we deal with music intended to accompany a story, especially when it came not only to the concert but to the recording? Can we just play these fragments without any background?
LV: And obviously the answer was you can’t.
Leonard Slatkin: That’s right. Imagine playing every excerpt from Peer Gynt just on its own; you miss the nature of what the story’s about and how the music might fit the play, sometimes to fill in between, sometimes perhaps to be played while the actors were speaking. In order to supply that background, we commissioned a new text from Amin Maalouf, who is maybe best known to musical audiences as having written libretti for the operas of Kaija Saariaho; he is one of the most distinguished of Arab poets and librettists, and lives in Paris. We premiered it about four years ago as part of our ongoing cycle in Lyon of recording the complete works of Ravel which utilize orchestra.
LV: How did the Carnegie Hall performance of Antar come about?
Leonard Slatkin: When the ONL was able to secure the funding for coming to the United States, and in particular playing at Carnegie Hall, I thought it was fitting that we bring to New York a work which not only would receive its American première, but would also have interest on the part of scholars, musicologists, and the general public. So, we translated Maalouf into English, to be narrated by Thomas Hampson.
LV: Did the narration have a different feel in French and English?
Leonard Slatkin: The narration on the recording was done in French by André Dusollier, who is one of the most distinguished of all French film actors, and he’s brilliant. His approach was a little more inward, where Hampson’s was more outgoing. The response to the piece from virtually everybody who was in Carnegie, and all the people who wrote about it and spoke about it, was that this has the potential to become a piece that will have a life after both the performances and the recording. It is musical storytelling at its best.
LV: You must love the music to have invested so much time and work?
Leonard Slatkin: I’ve always known the Rimsky Antar and loved it. At one time in this country, it was played on a regular basis. I’m surprised that it’s pretty much disappeared. I’m not sure why, possibly because it ends softly—some people don’t like that. But Schéhérazade ends softly as well. So, loving the music itself, the idea of being able to present it within the context of the story was something I couldn’t resist. The plan we came up with put a lot on the line, but I was very pleased with the end result, and I think the recording shows that as well. And, we decided that the logical thing would be to include Ravel’s own Shéhérazade as the companion piece on the disc. It is a nice touch; when we think of Shéhérazade, we think of Rimsky-Korsakov’s but Ravel, of course, wrote his magnificent song cycle based on the same exotic subject matter.
LV: Renée Fleming sang the Ravel in your Carnegie Hall concert. Isabelle Druet sings it with you on the recording.
Leonard Slatkin: Isabelle has been featured so far on all of our discs that include vocal works. She is an incredible rising star: she has passion and intensity in her performances, her intonation is flawless, obviously her French is good, and we have developed a really fine working relationship with her and the orchestra. I actually had her make her American debut in Detroit last season, so I’m really hopeful that she becomes part of the operatic force in this country as well as around the world, I think she’s that good.
LV: What did she make her debut in Detroit with?
Leonard Slatkin: Her debut included Ravel’s Shéhérazade, the two Hebraic songs and several other pieces that have yet to be issued. We still have to record a bit more to complete the full Ravel project, and she’ll be involved in other pieces as well. Also, she is on an upcoming recording of Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette.
Leonard Slatkin Biography & Discography