On April 16 and 18, 2015, The Cleveland Orchestra performed Florent Schmitt’s 1907/10 ballet La Tragédie de Salomé for the first time in over 70 years. Not only was it the first time the Cleveland musicians had played this work with the orchestra, for most, it was their first time ever performing any music of this French composer.
I had the privilege of attending the Cleveland concerts in which the Salomé score was on the program — and it was played magnificently. As music critic Mark Satola wrote in The Plain Dealer, the city’s leading newspaper:
Conventional wisdom holds that concert hall audiences only respond to tried and true warhorses — Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms — and that it’s not in anyone’s best interest to puzzle listeners with something unfamiliar, however brilliant, refreshing or revelatory it might be.
Thursday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert put the lie to that belief when conductor Lionel Bringuier returned to Severance Hall with a program that had as its centerpiece the astonishing symphonic suite La Tragédie de Salomé, by the largely neglected French composer Florent Schmitt.
The last time [this work] was played by The Cleveland Orchestra was in the mid-1940s. Schmitt’s music … inhabits its own world of startling sonic brilliance and terrifically difficult execution.
To say the orchestra fully realized Schmitt’s intent with this score is to understate their impressive achievement. From the colorful “Dance of Pearls” to the exciting “Dance of Terror,” Bringuier crafted a dazzling reading that went beyond a good reading of the score and became something extraordinary.
Mark Satola could have gone further: Not only did the orchestra rise to the occasion, the sold-out audience responded enthusiastically to music that most of them must have been hearing for the first time ever.
Going beyond the audience appeal, I was also interested in hearing what members of the orchestra felt about playing this music. While in town I was able to interview two musicians — violist Eliesha Nelson and principal bassoon player John Clouser. Presented below are highlights from our discussion:
PLN: Prior to these Cleveland Orchestra concerts, had either of you ever performed any music by Florent Schmitt?
John Clouser: No, not prior to this.
Eliesha Nelson: I had never played any music of Schmitt, although I am familiar with his Légende, which is a piece for viola [or saxophone]. I hope to perform that work one day.
PLN: La Tragédie de Salomé isn’t part of the core orchestral repertoire, of course. What practice strategies do you use when approaching more obscure music like this?
John Clouser: It’s not uncommon for The Cleveland Orchestra to play something new. The notion that if it’s not canonical, it’s out of our wheelhouse isn’t true. Sometimes it’s a piece that’s a commission. But we embrace all kinds of music.
Of course, there’s a bit more discovery when it comes to understanding the meaning of music that we don’t know and that we haven’t performed previously.
Eliesha Nelson: With an unfamiliar piece of music, I look at the part from beginning to end to see if there might be some tricky passage that I will have to break down and practice. I tend not to go to recordings at the beginning. I prefer to experience the way the conductor wants the music to be, rather than come in with a set idea because of what I’ve been listening to on a recording.
PLN: Thinking about the Salomé score, is there anything about the way Schmitt writes for the orchestra — or for your particular section of the orchestra — that’s unusual or noteworthy?
Eliesha Nelson: It seems like Schmitt had a very good understanding of string playing. For me, I found that the music fits very well in the hand, and nothing was awkward. There are a few places where the notes are high — perhaps a high C-sharp out of the blue. But outside of that, it feels fine.
John Clouser: Schmitt’s craft is great. He writes well. We got the music a couple weeks before the performances. I looked it over and it didn’t have any major challenges for the bassoon — things that I’d have to spend too much time on. There were some passages that I had to learn, but it wasn’t an exorbitant effort.
When I first looked at the music, it looked like a piece by Debussy or Ravel. As I leafed through the part and heard it in my head, it really had that French Impressionist feel. I also sensed Holst — sections where it seemed like The Planets.
Eliesha Nelson: When you get to a certain point in an orchestral career, you have an idea about music of a certain genre and style and country — there are certain things that one just comes to expect. And Schmitt’s music falls neatly into those categories — it’s very “French”!
John Clouser: I’d also say that Schmitt’s music is well-crafted in comparison to music that just wallows around, or that doesn’t speak well idiomatically or ensemble-wise. The music is very efficient in that regard. He writes so well for the wind corps — and particularly for the bassoon from my own point of view.
PLN: What are your thoughts on Schmitt’s orchestration in the Salomé score?
Eliesha Nelson: To me, the orchestration is tight and really colorful. It’s also very intelligently composed. To me, it makes a lot of sense as it flows.
John Clouser: Schmitt uses the orchestra in the best way possible. He uses instrumentation in much the same way as the other Impressionists. The music is colorful. It’s dramatic. It’s cinematic, but without being insipid in any way. It’s quite sophisticated.
Eliesha Nelson: Depending on the orchestra and the conductor, you could really fly with this score! It’s very dramatic music, with huge brush strokes.
PLN: Do you have any particular observations about rehearsing this music prior to performance?
Eliesha Nelson: In our first run-through of the work, which Lionel did without any pauses, the music just made sense to me.
John Clouser: That’s right. The first time we rehearsed it, Lionel Bringuier read the whole piece through without stopping. That was the right thing to do, and it worked. It’s the kind of thing we can do well, considering the level of talent that’s sitting on the stage.
One of the really great things about this piece is that it rolls together so well. This is music that isn’t in our ears already. When we come to unfamiliar music like this, we have to get it in our ears, because no one wants to be playing the first performance while still trying to figure out how it all comes together. The beauty of this score is that it’s so well-written, and it goes together so well, that this wasn’t a problem at all.
But there was one point I noted. When we first played through the music, one thing that didn’t seem quite right to me was the oboe solo in the middle of the work. But then I found out that the score actually calls for an offstage soprano voice, and I think that would work better. Otherwise, it seems as though the oboe isn’t conveying what we should be hearing at that pivotal moment — it needs that sense of wailing off in the distance. Maybe having the oboe playing offstage might be a more effective way to perform it if a soprano soloists isn’t available.
PLN: Are there other observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and La Tragédie de Salomé?
Eliesha Nelson: Once thing that’s really interesting is the connection between Schmitt and other composers like Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Lionel talked about this in rehearsal — about how Schmitt and Stravinsky were friends. We can hear the rhythmic things that Stravinsky took from Salomé for The Rite of Spring. One might listen to Schmitt and think, ‘I can’t believe that Schmitt stole this from The Rite of Spring.’ But then you’d have to realize that it’s the other way around!
I think a lot of people in the orchestra really like this piece. My stand partner mentioned that she felt the music was very strong, and I agree. It’s a great work.
John Clouser: The Salomé is a programmatic piece — and since it started out as a ballet, it’s very theatrical, too. It’s highly dramatic and cinematic. It’s not hard to unlock the meaning of the music.
It’s also a very meaningful piece. It’s quite a joy to take something that’s so well-crafted and give it the life it deserves. I think Schmitt’s Salomé is quite something, and I was very happy to have the chance to play it.
… And we music lovers are equally happy that the orchestra chose to program La Tragédie de Salomé, which hadn’t been played in Cleveland in seven decades.
As it turns out, it was an exhilarating experience hearing music so masterfully interpreted by Lionel Bringuier, and brought to life beautifully by the stellar musicians of The Cleveland Orchestra. What a thrill for us all.