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San Juan Symphony to play night music to remember

Music Director and Conductor Thomas Heuser practices with the San Juan Symphony. (Judith Reynolds/For the Herald)
Orchestra to perform in Durango, Farmington

“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished.”

In 1920, that’s how French composer Maurice Ravel described the ballet he hoped would be performed based on his new symphonic work titled “La valse poème chorégraphique” (choreographic or symphonic poem).

“The clouds gradually scatter: one sees, an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth – an imperial court, about 1855.”

Ravel completed the score for “La valse,” but a ballet was never staged in his lifetime. Ravel died in 1937 at age 62. But his astonishingly beautiful music has lived on and is among the most performed by international orchestras today.

Last year’s spellbinding performance of Ravel’s “Bolero” opened the San Juan Symphony Orchestra’s 37th season. Music lovers who thought they knew the piece, heard it afresh in Durango and Farmington. It’s been talked about ever since and passes the Durango grocery-store-chat-test for longevity.

For the next concert in the 38th season, Music Director Thomas Heuser and company, will make good on the concert title, “Ravishing” with Ravel’s “La valse” and two other works. The orchestra will open with “Nocturne for Orchestra,” by the late English-Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy. It’s a moody, darkly colorful work located in the genre of “night music.” Maconchy’s “Nocturne” will probably be new to most music lovers, then Heuser and company will follow with Ravel’s spectacular homage to the waltz.

The work, Heuser writes in program notes, was originally conceived as a commission from the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

“But it was rejected,” Heuser writes, adding that Diaghilev apparently noted: “It’s a masterpiece, but it’s not ballet. It’s the portrait of a ballet ... it’s the painting of a ballet.”

If you go

WHAT: “Ravishing,” San Juan Symphony second concert, 38th season, Music Director Thomas Heuser, works by Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Maconchy.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College Durango. Henderson Performance Hall, San Juan College, Farmington.

TICKETS: Durango single tickets range from $21 students to $64 adults.

MORE INFORMATION: Call 247-7567 or visit www.durangoconcerts.com.

That quote was taken from a reflection by composer Francis Poulenc, who attended the meeting between Ravel and Diaghilev. After the rejection, Poulenc added: “Ravel proceeded to give me a lesson in modesty, which has lasted me all my life: He picked up his music quite quietly and, without worrying about what we all thought of it, calmly left the room.”

Imaginatively, Ravel set the work in Vienna’s imperial court, the era of Johann Strauss Jr. and it can be viewed as a tribute to Strauss. But it is definitely a product of 20th century Impressionism – blazing with lush harmonies and heart-stopping dynamics in a fluid, cloudlike structure.

By now, various choreographers and ballet companies have seen the light and created new productions. It started in the 1950s and continues into 2023. Historically, two famous choreographers started the trend: Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine. In 1958, Ashton created a classic, ensemble version of a Viennese Ball. In 1951, Balanchine manifested a more modern dance-of-death interpretation. You can see both on YouTube.

After intermission, the orchestra will endeavor to match Ravel’s magic by unspooling Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” Symphonic in breadth and style, the suite brims with Romantic brooding. “Ravishing” looks like another San Juan concert to remember and reference in the grocery store.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.