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Eastman Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia tackles Britten's controversial "Les Illuminations"

Igniting passion 

Eastman Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia tackles Britten's controversial "Les Illuminations"

"I associate Britten with good, heavy, German classics," says conductor Neil Varon. "I know he's not, but I do. He has so much quality. His work is so well written."

Varon speaks of English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in a manner giving away Varon's own love for Brahms, Wagner, and Bruckner. In the September 24 concert of the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and the Eastman Philharmonia, the program will feature works of Britten, Bruckner, and Beethoven, including Britten's passionate "Les Illuminations."

"Les Illuminations," a work for string orchestra with soprano or tenor, is inspired by a group of prose poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Britten's score uses nine of Rimbaud's 42 poems, beginning with Rimbaud's "Fanfare," "J'aiseul la clef de cette parade sauvage" (I, alone, have the key to this savage parade).

"This, right here, is the key to the whole piece," says Varon, gesturing to two lines of the score of "Les Illuminations" that I brought to the interview. "This repeats three times. This unlocks the door to the puzzle of the piece."

It is Varon's own passion that comes across, even at the little café table where we sit. I know Varon to be a conductor of grand gestures and flying hair, having seen him conduct on several occasions, most notably in his position as conductor of orchestras at the Eastman School of Music.

The text of Rimbaud's poems is jam-packed with all the anguish, anxiety, and ardor of a period French poet. A few of the poems were published in La Vogue magazine in spring 1886. A collection of the poems was first published several months later in fall 1886 -- under the name of Rimbaud's lover, poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Rimbaud wrote the poems during a trip to England with Verlaine, where Rimbaud was inspired by the English word, "illuminations."

For Varon, he describes the challenge he faces in conducting "Les Illuminations" as "whether I can get all the different colors out of the score." Indeed, the poetry as lyrics spans lines as cryptic as, "O le plus violent Paradis de la grimace enragée!" (Oh, the most violent Paradise of the enraged grimace!).Varon has his work cut out for him, and for the first concert of the ESM orchestral season.

ESM has two orchestras, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and the Eastman Philharmonia. In years past, students progressed from one orchestra to the other, largely following their undergraduate grade progression. But, last year, after Varon organized a student advisory board for the orchestras, he took to heart their recommendation that orchestral auditions become merit-based.

This year, the auditions for the two ESM orchestras were blind. For each section of the orchestral auditions, Varon sat behind a screen with the principal player for the relevant sections of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to conduct the auditions. "We even told women not to wear high heeled shoes and not to wear any shoes, so that we would eliminate even the sound of the shoes of the person entering the audition," says Varon.

Auditions for the school orchestras is a massive undertaking, transpiring over the course of several days of back-to-back auditions of approximately 10 minutes each, beginning almost as soon as the students arrive on campus. Just for the violin sections, 72 students auditioned; all played the same piece. Varon explains that it takes about the first 10 people to audition in a respective category to start to develop the curve around which the auditions are scored.

Varon says that the auditions ranged from "very, very great highs to relative inexperience. We have fabulous kids. We give fabulous performances. But, it is also an educational process."

The two orchestras perform a full season of concerts, nearly all of them free. The essential repertoire for the concerts are the core composers and works, and Varon says that a person could attend every concert for approximately five years before you might hear a repeat of a core classic.

In addition to Britten's work, the September 24 program includes German composer Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, which, Varon explains, Bruckner wrote when he knew he was dying. "It is one of the most spiritual pieces in the repertoire. It is an incredible piece."

With the Bruckner, the challenge is not as much whether students will relate to the work, but whether they can develop the stamina necessary to perform a work of nearly one hour in length. Varon has chosen to perform only the first three movements of the Bruckner symphony, noting that to include the fourth movement would make the piece run nearly 80 minutes. As Varon says, "At that point, you need a seasoned audience. Even the audience deals with time values."

Varon finds the juxtaposition of the Britten against the Bruckner to be "exciting -- almost total opposites," he says.

Like the repetition of the piece "Les Illuminations," Varon and I circle back to the "parade sauvage" (the savage parade). "It's like a flashlight shining on a particular, often strange, apparition. It's like life, itself."

Excerpt from "Les Illuminations," by Arthur Rimbaud

Oh, the most violent Paradise of enraged grimaces!

Chinese, Hottentots, Bohemians, gypsies, hyaenas, Molochs, old dementeds, sinister demons, they mix up common, gentle tricks with bestial affectations and tokens of affection. They interpret new plays and songs as young, lively girls. Master jugglers, they transform places and people and use magnetic comedy.

I, alone, have the key of this savage parade.

Speaking of Classical Music, Eastman School Of Music

  • Eastman Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia tackles Britten's controversial "Les Illuminations"

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