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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Debussy's Lush 'La Mer' at MSO

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The compelling beauty of La Mer, Debussy's most famous and widely performed score, dates from 1903, a time of great personal happiness following a divorce from his wife and new life with his mistress. The music abounds in the shaded orchestrations and daring harmonies typifying the definitive Debussy style, while breaking away from the traditional format usually associated with impressionistic music. The distinguishing irony is that, while clearly programmatic and containing three distinct movements specifically not intended to be labeled with that loaded term “symphony,” La Mer expands the usual characteristics of impressionistic music with such stunningly evocative images that one forgets that this is in fact descriptive program music. It remains one of the genre's most revered compositions.

The score revels in the majesty of the sea—the unpredictable, ever-changing surface varying from moment to moment under the capricious influences of wind and sun. The concluding storm sequence is awesome and magnificent, but with the controlled understatement that distinguishes this most discreet of composers. The lush orchestration smacks of earlier 19th-century Romanticism, but with subdued restraint and less deliberation than the weightier Germanic tone poems of that period. Yet, La Mer yields nothing in dramatic power.

The unpredictable, sometimes-frightening changes of the sea provide the core of Debussy's inspiration. Like the sea itself, the music never settles into a specific pattern, constantly shifting into ever-changing images apparent for but a brief moment, then fading quickly out of reach, enhanced by an overreaching musical sensuality yielding a more defined pictorial imagery than Debussy's earlier work. A unique orchestral timbre enhances La Mer's originality, although one never escapes an awareness of a specific pictorial tableau. It is refreshingly unlike the amorphous ambiguity that defines impressionism for less imaginative listeners.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Bruckner's Sixth Symphony on the same program, April 27-28 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Bruckner's carefully structured composition makes for an odd bedfellow with La Mer and will provide a study in contrast.