Experiencing Florent Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra (1920) and other orientalist masterpieces from France’s “Golden Age” of classical music live in concert: An eyewitness report from Paris.

American cellist Aaron Merritt and French arts administrator Eric Butruille traveled to the Philharmonie in Paris for the June 2018 event and were interviewed immediately thereafter.

Reves d'Orient Orchestre de Paris June 2018 Fabien Gabel Florent Schmitt Roussel Debussy Koechlin d'Indy Ravel On June 9th and 10th, 2018, the Orchestre de Paris presented a program that must rank as one of the most interesting concerts of this year’s artistic season in the city. Themed Rêves d’Orient, the concert consisted of works by five French composers — d’Indy, Debussy, Roussel, Schmitt and Ravel — each of the pieces based on “orientalist” storylines:

  • Vincent d’Indy: Istar (1893) (Persia)
  • Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade (1904) (Arabia) … featuring soprano soloist Measha Brueggergosman)
  • Claude Debussy: Khamma (1912) (Egypt) … orchestrated by Charles Koechlin
  • Florent Schmitt: Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite No. 2 (1920) (Egypt)
  • Albert Roussel: Padmâvatî Suite No. 2 (1923) (India)
Fabien Gabel French conductor

Fabien Gabel

The program was the brainchild of Orchestre de Paris guest conductor Fabien Gabel, working in concert with the orchestra’s délégué artistique (artistic producer) Edouard Foure Caul-Futy. As it turned out, the majority of the concert consisted of rarities that had never been programmed in the Orchestre de Paris’ 50-year history.

Philharmonie de Paris

Philharmonie de Paris

The well-publicized concert was a success, drawing nearly 6,000 people to three performances held over the weekend.

One novel aspect of the concert experience was removing the seats from the main floor of the Philharmonie’s Grand Salle Pierre Boulez and replacing them with plush oriental carpets.  This clever marketing tactic provided a relaxed and intimate ambiance wholly suited to the exoticism of the musical scores being presented.

The concert was also a personal triumph for conductor Fabien Gabel, who has established a worldwide reputation as one of the biggest advocates of French music dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, he has programmed the music of all five of these composers with his own Orchestre Symphonique de Québec as well as with other orchestras throughout the world.

As regular readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog know, Maestro Gabel is a particular champion of the music of Florent Schmitt — and yet these Paris performances of the Antony & Cleopatra Suite #2 were “firsts” for him as well as for the orchestra.

In post-concert correspondence with the maestro, he was effusive in his praise of the Orchestre de Paris musicians, noting:

“What was amazing was the high quality of the playing in the concerts. Antoine et Cléopâtre is extremely difficult music to play for each musician, and the quality of every solo was simply stunning.  Listening to a live feed of the concert is impressive, and I think that the Parisian players were clearly inspired. What I can also report is that the audience was blown away by the Schmitt, too — not just the musicians.”  

Fabien Gabel Orchestre de Paris

Fabien Gabel rehearsing the Orchestre de Paris prior to the Rêves d’Orient concerts (June 2018).

The programming was novel enough to attract visitors from far afield. Two acquaintances of mine made the journey from out of town to take in the June 9th concert — Eric Butruille, an arts administrator from Lyon (France) and Aaron Merritt, an orchestral musician and cello instructor from Miami, Florida (USA).

Following the concert, both gentlemen were kind enough to share their observations about the event and the music that was presented, with particular focus on the second suite of Antony & Cleopatra.  Their insights make for interesting reading and give us a sense of what it was like to experience these rarities in a live concert setting.  Highlights from the discussion are presented below.

PLN: Were you familiar with Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre music before you attended this Orchestre de Paris concert?

Aaron Merritt:  I’ve long known who Florent Schmitt was — vaguely — but my real discovery of the composer happened earlier this year.  I came to him via Richard Strauss’s opera Salome [1905].  After seeing that opera for the seventh or eighth time, I began to wonder how other composers had treated the biblical tale of Salome in their works.  I was aware of Schmitt’s nearly contemporaneous ballet La Tragédie de Salomé [1907], but finally sat down to give it a focused listen.

And I’m glad that I did! I was so enchanted by the music that I decided to seek out his “famous” works and found the Florent Schmitt Blog. Antoine et Cléopâtre was one of the first works I had the opportunity to explore, and I was totally bowled over by the beauty, the creativity and color of this music — the same way that I had been with La Tragédie de Salomé.

Eric Butruille:  As for me, I had listened to the Antony & Cleopatra music some years ago, but I can’t really say I was very familiar with it.  As a matter of fact, I had heard all of these works before, but not recently and not ever in a concert setting.  Unlike Aaron’s preparation, I made it a point to not listen to them before the concert, so as to have a “fresh ear” for rediscovery of these pieces.

PLN: What were your overall impressions of the music — and of the Orchestre de Paris performance of it?

Orchestre de Paris June 9-10 2018 program

The Orchestre de Paris’ Rêves d’Orient concert program, presented at the Philharmonie de Paris on June 9-10, 2018. Fabien Gabel conducted.

Aaron Merritt:  When I decided to make the trip to Paris after finding out about this concert, I downloaded scores of the works which were going to be presented (coincidentally, I had already purchased a score for d’Indy’s Istar a few months before finding out about the concert).  I did some light studying, so my impressions of the music were pretty much formed going into this concert.

But hearing Antoine et Cléopâtre live reaffirmed the brilliance and complexity of the score — especially in the wonderfully live and resonant acoustic of the Paris Philharmonie.  The color, detail, ebullience, and virtuosity were remarkable throughout.

I’m probably among a very small group of people in the audience who actually knew all five works fairly well — but I think everyone who was truly listening must have been captivated from the very first moments of the Suite.

Eric Butruille:  I felt that this carefully-built program proved the “viability” of all of these works and composers in the concert hall — and the necessity to program them far more often.  My only slight disappointment was with the Padmâvatî Suite which, isolated from its operatic context, proved not very representative of Roussel’s art and craftsmanship.  That item might have been better replaced by Dukas’ La Péri, for example, or perhaps the dances from Henri Rabaud’s opera Mârouf, savetier du Caire.

PLN: What are your observations about the three movements of Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra Suite #2? What aspects of each movement did you find particularly noteworthy or memorable?

Eric Butruille:  I felt that each movement of the suite had links to some of Schmitt’s more well-known works — pieces like La Tragédie de Salomé, the violin passage in Psaume XLVII before the soprano solo’s entrance, and Dionysiaques — that one particularly in comparison with the second movement of the Suite.

Aaron Merritt:  Again, what struck me most was the color, brilliance, and virtuosity of Schmitt’s music.  No doubt the entire program was a challenge for the musicians, but it’s obvious that the Schmitt was the most involved piece presented — as well as the lengthiest.

Philharmonie de Paris logoThere were some standout moments. The first few evocative and exotically perfumed celesta notes and underlying string tremolo of “Nuit au palais de la reine” really set the scene.  The delicacy in the oboe and English horn melodies successfully painted the picture of exoticism and orientalism — actually more convincingly than anything else presented during the evening (perhaps with the exception of some dark and austere moments in Roussel’s second suite from Padmâvatî). In the fine acoustic of the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, this was delightful and very special.

In the second movement, “Orgie et danses,” I was really struck by the clarity and power of the first big brass “refrain,” the physical animation and fearlessness of the violins in their difficult “random” runs, as well as the clarity and precision of the mallets and celesta. It was quite exciting to watch all seven percussionists having quite the party at the back of the stage!

I also really loved the color of the string solos toward the end of this movement.  As an orchestral player myself, I was really struck by how tight the ensemble was.  It’s such a virtuoso work — with so many independent lines in a score unfamiliar to the musicians — but I could tell that everyone was really plugged in, listening and playing so generously.

In the final movement, “Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre,” I loved the texture the orchestra produced in the early and sparse “footstep” section in the horns and basses.  There’s an offbeat echo which was done with such subtlety that you had to really pay attention to figure out who were playing the off-beats.  The stillness and mysteriousness were so very convincing.

PLN: Antoine et Cléopâtre was part of a concert devoted to “orientalism” that featured sumptuous musical scores by Roussel, d’Indy, Debussy/Koechlin and Ravel in addition to Schmitt — pieces composed within a 30-year period between 1895 and 1925.  Based on what you experienced, do you think the concert was an artistic success?

Aaron Merritt:  It was a remarkable success.  Even though I came in with a lot of forethought and familiarity with the music, I was not let down in any way.  Adding to the experience, a unique atmosphere was created in the hall by the removal of the floor seats; instead, concertgoers sat or reclined on Persian rugs.

It had the casualness of an afternoon at a Parisian park or attending an outdoor concert. Couples were nestled and being affectionate; it made it seem very bohemian.  I actually think it made people listen more attentively and open up their imagination!

Paris Philharmonic Salle Pierre Boulez with oriental carpets

Oriental carpets line the main floor of the Paris Philharmonie’s Grand Salle Pierre Boulez as concert-goers begin to arrive for the Saturday evening event (June 9, 2018).

I suspect there were some people who had come to the concert specifically to hear this niche program, as I had done.  But it seemed that the entire audience was very attentive and enthusiastic about what they were hearing.  I wonder if a program like this would have been as convincing — or as successful — had it been mounted in the United States? 

Eric Butruille:  I’d say it was definitely an artistic success — and a commercial one as well, probably. The house was pretty full, which is amazing for such an original program.  It shows that there is an audience out there that is curious to explore little-known works.  That group of people isn’t as large as the audience for “big standards,” of course, but with a fresh and different marketing approach it is possible to reach it.

On a more personal level, not only did the concert fulfill my own expectations, I had brought a friend with me who enjoys classical music but who doesn’t attend symphony concerts very often. He was very impressed and happy with what he heard, and it gave him an incentive to “learn to listen” to music he wasn’t familiar with at all.  He was particularly receptive to the subtleties in the music, as well as the moods conjured up in the Khamma and Antony & Cleopatra selections.

PLN: What struck you as common threads or similarities between the various pieces that were performed?

Eric Butruille:  That’s an interesting question, because I think the program actually showed the diversity of the “orientalist” inspirations of that period more than it did the similarities!

Aaron Merritt:  It’s obvious that this set of pieces belonged together in that they were all French interpretations of the “exotic,” referencing unfamiliar places and times.  And all of them exhibited brilliance and subtlety in their orchestration.

But I found myself surprised at their differences, too. For example, I left the concert thinking that the Ravel Shéhérazade was very perfect in its simplicity — almost to a fault — and that the Debussy Khamma was the most “direct” music.  These are the opposite opinions from what I would ordinarily think:  Debussy being direct?!

Earlier in the week I had visited the Musee d’Orsay, where there was a small exhibit of French orientalist paintings. Having the opportunity to compare the creations of artists like Delanoy, du Noüy, Dinet and Cabanel was an experience that helped to engage my mindset for this concert, contemplating the fascination of the “unknown” lands and atmospheres illustrated in the paintings and other artistic works.

PLN: In what ways did Florent Schmitt’s piece differ from the other compositions presented in the concert?

Aaron Merritt:  It seems to me that Schmitt’s Suite had the most diversity of color, style and detail — and it also came across as having the clearest narrative or programmatic function of the five works.

Istar Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein as Istar (costume by Léon Bakst).

That being said, d’Indy’s Istar came across brilliantly, too.  Being a set of variations, Istar has inherent diversity in its construction, but it seems like an improvisation or a dream to the listener.

The Padmâvatî Second Suite by Roussel, while being extracted by the composer from an opera, was a little shorter. It conveyed a feeling of mystery and darkness throughout; to me, that particular work comes across as more vague in mood and detail.

Charles Koechlin’s orchestration of Khamma is absolutely spectacular; there was a propulsion and menacing energy throughout the presentation of this piece.  This ballet music felt way shorter than it actually is!

PadmavatiThe only piece of the five that I had performed or seen live in concert before this weekend was Ravel’s Shéhérazade.  While I love Ravel and think that every one of his works is near-perfection, compared to the other works on the program the simplicity, delicacy, and transparency made this particular piece seem almost like a palate cleanser between courses!

I would say that even though all five pieces were “medium-sized” (versus a more standard overture-concerto-symphony concert program format), Schmitt’s piece came off as being the “main event.” Not only was it the longest work on the program, it had the most diversity and the biggest moments.

Also, even though all five works require subtlety and intensive preparation, I suspect that Schmitt’s composition was almost certainly the most difficult one to prepare.

PLN: How did the audience respond to the concert — and to the Florent Schmitt piece in particular?

Eric Butruille:  Actually, I think most of the audience members were flabbergasted at the quality of the music the vast majority of them were discovering for the first time.  Now, my front-row neighbor was obviously aware of the Schmitt piece given his head movements following the rhythms, but I’d wager that most people were discovering repertoire completely unknown to them — and quite enjoying it.

Maud Allan

Maud Allan, the Canadian-American actress and choreographer who commissioned Debussy’s Khamma, never had the opportunity to star in it.

Aaron Merritt:  The reaction to the concert overall was great.  I think that the audience responded most favorably to the Schmitt and the Debussy/Koechlin pieces that made up the second half of the program, and there was prolonged applause at the end of the concert.

Intermission at the Orchestre de Paris' Reves d'Orient concert (June 2018)

Intermission at the Orchestre de Paris’ Rêves d’Orient concert (June 2018).

PLN: Fabien Gabel is a strong advocate for French music from this period — particularly lesser performed scores by composers like d’Indy, Schmitt, Roussel and others.  During his pre-concert talk, were there any comments he made that you found particularly interesting and worth sharing?

Eric Butruille:  Maestro Gabel explained the creation process of the pieces on the program, and I learned a lot from his presentation.  He spoke with obvious passion about these works, and about putting this program together with the producer of the Orchestre de Paris.

Edouard Foure Caul-Futy Orchestre de Paris

Edouard Foure Caul-Futy, Délégué Artistique of the Orchestre de Paris.

I managed to speak a few words with both gentlemen, congratulating them for producing this concert but also mentioning about the responsibility of programmers to change the negative paradigm of presenting only well-familiar works. They acknowledged that changes were needed, but with a practical eye towards the “mercantile needs” to fill the house.  I’m happy to report that the Orchestre de Paris’ producer is committed to learning from this programming experimentation, and to keep it going in future seasons.

Aaron Merritt:  Unfortunately I am not fluent in French, plus I was a little late to the talk (I had come from a chamber music concert elsewhere in the building featuring music of Roussel, Jean Cras and Marcel Tournier, that went a little long).  But one thing I picked up on was that Maestro Gabel categorizes Schmitt’s orchestration capabilities on par with the acknowledged greats — composers like Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Mahler (or at least this is what I think he was saying).

Maestro also talked about how he tries to sneak these rarely-performed works onto concert programs along with more well-known repertoire like Mozart and Berlioz, in order to avoid scaring away concert-goers who are unfamiliar with the pieces — realizing that it is often a tough sell to get audiences to try something new. 

Fabien Gabel Orchestre de Paris Reves d'Orient Schmitt Roussel, d'Indy

Conductor Fabien Gabel acknowledges the ovation of the audience at the conclusion of the Orchestre de Paris’ Rêves d’Orient concert (June 9, 2018).

PLN: Both of you traveled a goodly distance to attend this event.  Based on how the concert went, are you glad that you made the journey?

Aaron Merritt:  Absolutely!  For me, it was the ideal opportunity to book my first-ever trip to Paris.  My cello teaching was wrapped up for the season and I had no orchestral concerts planned that week.  If it had been just to experience one of the pieces in concert, I wouldn’t have booked a trip around it.  But the “special event” for me was the complete program, since four out of the five pieces are hardly ever (or never) performed in the United States. 

Eric Butruille: I am a little different from Aaron in that I don’t really have a “home base” these days and I had already planned to be in Paris during this period. But I can definitely say that it was very rewarding to have had the opportunity to attend this concert!

PLN: To people who are unfamiliar with the music of Florent Schmitt, what compositions in addition to Antoine et Cléopâtre would you recommend that they explore?

Eric Butruille:  For people who aren’t familiar with Schmitt’s music, I’d recommend that they start with the “three biggies” which provide a nice traversal of the composer’s inspiration, language and style: La Tragédie de Salomé, Psaume XLVII and Dionysiaques.  After that, in many of Schmitt’s other orchestral and choral works they they’ll listen to, they’ll find musical linkages to these pieces.

Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt, photographed at about the time he composed Antony & Cleopatra (1920).

Aaron Merritt:  I’m still exploring the riches of the Schmitt catalogue myself, but my favorite works so far are La Tragédie de Salomé, the Symphony #2 [1957] (with the most glorious slow movement — I can’t get beyond how beautifully Schmitt constructs and colors a “stream of consciousness” into a delightful and poetic arc, so full of unexpected turns of phrase), the Sonate libre for violin and piano [1919], and the crazy-impressive cello piece Introït, récit et congé [1948]. 

PLN: Are there any final observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and his music?

Eric Butruille:  We need to convince great musicians, conductors and orchestras to program Schmitt’s music in the concert hall.  Indeed, Psaume XLVII and Salomé should be programmed as often as Mahler 8 or Ravel’s Boléro.

But that’s far from the case, up to now. To illustrate, during Maestro Gabel’s pre-concert talk I was absolutely appalled to hear that some of the composers or pieces on the program were having their Orchestre de Paris débuts at that concert.  To think that such composers had never been presented before by a major French orchestra like the Orchestre de Paris is more than scandalous — and it says a lot about the inexcusable lack of interest in defense of patrimoine français.

It would be like a major German orchestra performing only Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann (in France, Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel) and disregarding all the others.

We also need to reach additional well-known conductors who have a very special relationship with their audiences and who can, in turn, convince programmers to include Florent Schmitt in their programs. I’m thinking of people like Kent Nagano, Gustavo Dudamel and Kirill Petrenko at the Berlin Philharmonic.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has already recorded one of the best versions of La Tragédie de Salomé, but unfortunately for a small label.  Perhaps he could convince Deutsche Grammophon to record a new Psaume XLVII at the highest level of artistic and technical quality.  (I deeply regret that Renée Fleming was never offered an opportunity to record that work, but it might not be too late …!)

The Death of Cleopatra <em>(painting by Hans Makart)</em>

Cleopatra (painting by Hans Makart)

Aaron Merritt:  Schmitt’s music is full of surprising colors, unexpected moments, and rhythmic complexity. The orchestrations are top-notch, with many layers and lots of subtlety.  Some pieces are somewhat quirky and therefore not as immediately accessible, but there are definitely other compositions like Antoine et Cléopâtre and La Tragédie de Salomé that function very well as starting points for new listeners. Both of these orientalist works are great gateways to the very special sonic world that is uniquely Schmitt’s own.

_____________________

As the comments of Messrs. Butruille and Merritt amply show, the Rêves d’Orient event at Philharmonie Hall in Paris was a very special presentation that was well-worth experiencing.  Moreover, the concert was recorded and will be broadcast over the Internet by France-Musique later this year (August 2, 2018).

France Musique logoHappily, those who weren’t able to travel to Paris in June will be able to hear the concert in all its glory. The broadcast performance will remain accessible on the France-Musique website for several months following the August 2nd air date.  You owe it to yourself to give it a listen.

Speaking about the future prospects of this kind of repertoire appearing in the concert hall, Fabien Gabel had this to say:

Palazzetto Bru Zane“The management of the Orchestre de Paris is aware that they need play this repertoire and other music like it. Alexandre Dratwicki from the Bru-Zane Foundation — an organization that was a key supporter of this concert — recognizes the same thing.  He and others are pushing for all the radio orchestras in France to perform more of this repertoire, so I’m optimistic!”

___________________________

Update (8/2/18):  France Musique has now uploaded the entire Orchestre de Paris concert.  You can access the program here.

One thought on “Experiencing Florent Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra (1920) and other orientalist masterpieces from France’s “Golden Age” of classical music live in concert: An eyewitness report from Paris.

  1. A wonderful interview. It makes me sad to have missed the live performance. I’ll definitely be tuning in on Aug. 2.

    Thank you for giving this music the attention it deserves.

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