Center stage: Maurice Ravel and Omaha Symphony musicians

Winds reveal the beauties of transformed piano pieces.


Maurice Ravel was in his mid-20s when he was inspired to write with youth in mind, creating miniature duo piano pieces for children. They incorporate ideas of Charles Perrault’s 17th and 18th centuries Mother Goose Tales, stories which children loved. Thus was born Ma mère l’Oye. After the premiere in 1908 Ravel even sent a letter to one of the young performers saying, “Thank you a thousand times for your child-like and sensitive performance.” Soon the music became so popular that he orchestrated a five-movement suite and one year later expanded that into a full ballet.

So it’s certainly no stretch of the imagination to perceive why this Sunday’s performances by the Omaha Chamber Music Society is titled “Dance with Mother Goose.” When wind-playing members of the Omaha Symphony are joined by Omaha harpist Katie Wychulis from the Lincoln Symphony, many dances resound. Six by Ravel and two by Granados.

Ma mère l’Oye begins with a stately one, popular even before Perrault’s time, a pavane. And two other movements of the five also evoke small people: Petit Poucet (Little Tom Thumb) and Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas). University of North Carolina School of the Arts music professor Mark Popkin arranged these pieces for wind quintet.

Speaking of youth and of dances, Enrique Granados apparently was in his teens when he wrote piano music, likewise transformed as heard in this concert. His Doce danzas españolas (Twelve Spanish Dances) are excerpted with the Dance No. 5, Andaluza, arranged by Ross Taylor and Dance No. 2, Orientale, arranged by John Gibson. Both arrangers are American.

As for more such pieces from Ravel, he wrote a minuet, a Northern Italian dance called forlane, and a rigaudon, a 17th Century folk dance for couples, amid six parts of the solo piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin. Seemingly homage to an earlier period, including its fugue, certainly it’s suggestive of the time of François Couperin (1668-1733). Yet this is more dedicated to the memory of people who died in the First World War. Hence Le tombeau or “tomb.”  In fact, Ravel designed his own title page to include a draped funerary urn.

The composition could be seen as an elegy for French culture, threatened by the war, according to musicologist Gerard McBurney, but he also calls attention to the evocation of “eternal values: beauty, elegance, the things that we want to preserve . . . the opposite of war.”  Actually, Ravel was criticized for the score’s light-hearted qualities.  Defending them, Marguerite Long, who premiered the score in 1919 said, “The dead are unhappy enough as they are. Is it necessary to dedicate laments to them forever? When a musician of genius gives them the best of himself…something they would have enjoyed, isn’t that the most moving tribute he can make?”

The composer orchestrated four of the piano pieces that same year. Three of those and the fugue are performed in an arrangement for wind quintet by Philadelphia Orchestra horn legend Mason Jones. The harp part from Ravel’s own orchestral score has been added.  

The artists performing are flutist Leslie Fagan, Heather Baxter playing oboe, Carmelo Galante, clarinet, bassoonist James Compton, and Ross Snyder plays horn. They are all members of the Omaha Symphony. Ms. Wychulis is not only with the Lincoln Symphony but also the Boulder Philharmonic and Sioux City Symphony.

Amid all this famed melodic beauty, youth and vitality shine.  And the essence of time and eternity remains evocative.

This concert is on June 12 at First Congregational Church, 421 S. 36 St. Sun.  3 p.m. Tickets $5-$20. www.omahachambermusic.org


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