Sunday, February 26, 2006

Saint-Saëns' "Carnival": a miraculous thing-ling

Today's chamber music concert features Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, which is as much a party as a piece of music. Someone told me that Saint-Saëns originally wrote it for a party, then later developed it for concert performances.

Our performance features as narrator Evelyn Lear, a retired operatic soprano who still has a radiant, beautiful stage presence. I wasn't familiar with her singing before this week, but the moment she walked on stage at a rehearsal on Thurday, it was clear that she was a veteran performer. All the musicians were a little awed by her presence, and afraid at first to say anything - when I did make a small suggestion about how to begin one of the movements, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and decided that I was to be the next Toscanini.

The poetry for this performance is by Ogden Nash, and
it is also quite fun and delightful. These pieces aren't really so much about animals, but people who behave like animals - cynical cuckoos, stubborn mules, mysterious fish, and of course, pompous elephants. That's the character I get to portray, in a famous double bass solo. It's a topic of some discussion just how vulgar and uncouth this piece should sound - in my opinion it has to have the proud nobility of the elephant, even if it might be a little clumsy and unrefined. Whatever the case, it has to be damned loud, which is always a fun challenge.

Also among
Saint-Saëns' "animals" are pianists - in one of the funniest moments, he mocks the dogmatic scale-practicing habits of his fellow musicians. It made me think about how we musicians really do behave like animals sometimes, belting out our excerpts like some kind of bizarrely contorted mating call. There was a moment in rehearsal when all the strings were arguing over a bowing, whether a certain note should be up or down, or maybe up but with a very connected quality - we all sounded like a pack of chattering monkeys. Ms. Lear wanted to say something very gracious and sweet, but she could barely get a word in edgewise (by this point all our awe-struck humility had been forgotten!) Oh well, I guess we still have time to evolve...

The performance will be this afternoon at 3 pm, in the Lincoln Theatre. Also on the program are two chamber pieces by Maurice Ravel, his string quartet and Introduction and Allegro for harp and mixed ensemble. You can find out more at

1 comment:

The Wandering Bard said...

I'm actually playing L'elephant on bass arranged by George Vance for an upcoming recital. I love how you're literate with music. :)