The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra announces the North American premiere concert performances of Florent Schmitt’s complete Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites — 95 years following their composition.

Le Palais hanté is also planned for performance and recording.

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus performing at Kleinhans Music Hall.

North American classical music lovers are in for a treat this coming orchestra season.  The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has announced that its 2014-15 concert schedule includes the first performances in North America of Florent Schmitt’s complete Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Op. 69.

The performances of this music — one of Schmitt’s most strikingly powerful and colorful “orientalist” scores — will take place in Buffalo, NY at Kleinhans Music Hall, the acoustically resplendent home of the Buffalo Philharmonic, on March 7-8, 2015.  BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta will conduct.

Edgar Allan Poe, American writer

American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). His “Haunted Palace” first appeared in print in a magazine published in Baltimore, Maryland in 1839. The following year it was included in a larger volume of works titled “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.”

Those concerts will be preceded by performances of Schmitt’s symphonic poem Le Palais hanté, Op. 49, inspired by a literary work of Edgar Allen Poe, which will be performed by the orchestra on February 21-22, 2015.

In addition, the Buffalo Philharmonic announced that the Schmitt scores will be recorded by NAXOS, providing a welcome opportunity for audiences worldwide to hear these interpretations documented for posterity.

While the BPO/NAXOS readings will not be premieres, none of this music is particularly well-represented on recordings.

The Antony & Cleopatra Suites have been recorded just twice — the most recent of them featuring Jacques Mercier and the Lorraine National Orchestra (available on the Timpani label).

An earlier recording, made by Cybelia with Leif Segerstam and the Rhineland-Palatinate Philharmonic, is long out of print.

The Haunted Palace has fared slightly better, with three recordings:  the 1983 premiere with Georges Prêtre and the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic (EMI, out of print), along with newer ones featuring Yan-Pascal Tortelier and the OSESP (São Paulo) Orchestra on Chandos plus a live concert recording with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra (available as a download from the ASO via Amazon).

JoAnn Falletta, American orchestra conductor

JoAnn Falletta, Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The upcoming Schmitt performances in Buffalo fulfill a long-time desire by JoAnn Falletta to popularize and record this composer’s music.

In fact, this is not the first time that Maestra Falletta has worked with these scores.  She programmed the first suite from Antoine et Cléopâtre in concert with both the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 2010 — the first time that suite had ever been presented in its entirety in North America.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask JoAnn Falletta about her interest in this music and what she finds noteworthy about it:

“It seemed inconceivable to me that music so powerful, so complex and so emotionally riveting was largely unknown in the United States.  When we had the opportunity to play the first suite a couple of years ago, the musicians and I found it fascinating, gorgeously written — and very challenging.”

Maestra Falletta is also grateful for the opportunity to record the score with NAXOS Classics:

“When Klaus Heymann [head of NAXOS] agreed to have us record both suites, we were thrilled.  I think that the extraordinary strength of the music itself — coupled with the irresistible tale of Antony and Cleopatra — will engage a large listening audience for this recording.”

Andre Gide, French author

French author and impresario André Gide (1869-1951), photographed in 1893. Florent Schmitt composed the incidental music for Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra.

To my mind, it’s difficult to overstate the compelling nature of the Antony and Cleopatra story.  Schmitt composed his score in 1920 as incidental music for André Gide’s rather luridly over-the-top adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, turning the score into two suites several years later.

The titles of the suites’ six movements tell us that this is no ordinary music — and that listeners are in for a real aural treat:

Suite #1

  • Antony & Cleopatra
  • The Camp of Pompey
  • The Battle of Actium

Suite #2

  • Night in the Palace of the Queen
  • Orgies & Dances
  • The Tomb of Cleopatra

The Jacques Mercier/Timpani recording, which has been uploaded to YouTube, is a good reference to gain a sense of the musical atmospherics that are present in Schmitt’s heady musical brew.

But having attended one of the Buffalo concert performances of the first suite in 2010, I can say definitively that there is no comparison between the music as heard in recordings versus its overwhelming impact when heard live.

Suffice it to say, I am looking forward to the concert when both suites will be performed (which will also be the first-ever North American performances of the second suite, by the way).

The Haunted PalaceI find the selection of The Haunted Palace, an earlier Schmitt composition dating from 1904, to be a very appropriate disk-mate to Antony & Cleopatra.

Florent Schmitt wasn’t the only French composer who was inspired to create music based on Poe’s literary output; there’s something about Poe that seems to resonate with the French psyche.

JoAnn Falletta explained the strategy behind the choice of this music as follows:

“We needed a piece of a different form and structure to complement the multi-movement form of the Antony & Cleopatra suites.  I find The Haunted Palace to be an evocative, impressionistic tone poem which beautifully illustrates another side of Florent Schmitt’s genius.”

In some respects, Schmitt was continuing in the vaunted Lisztian tradition of tone poem writing when he composed Le Palais hanté.

On the other hand, it is a piece of music that is clearly Gallic in flavor, and few would confuse it with being a Central European work.

The Prêtre/EMI and Botstein/ASO recordings have been uploaded to YouTube; you can find them here and here.  They are useful to have as reference items … but again, the chance to hear this music in live performances comes along all too seldom.

Classical music lovers in Western New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and further afield would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to see and hear these pieces that are such rarities in the concert hall.


Update (11/7/15): The NAXOS recording of Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre and Le Palais hanté with JoAnn Falletta directing the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was released in November 2015 to widespread critical acclaim.  The recording is available from Amazon, ArkivMusic, HB Direct, Presto Classical and numerous other online music sources.

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