Ground-breaking music by Beethoven, Debussy, close Grand Rapids Symphony's 2016-17 season

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of works of music have been composed across the history of music. Only a small portion lives on beyond the lives of their composers. An even smaller portion enters the ranks of great works of art.

Very, very few are seminal works that alter the course of musical history, but the Grand Rapids Symphony closes its 2016-17 season with two pieces that changed everything that followed.

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun are on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s program on May 19-20.

The former paved the way from the elegant 18th century music of Haydn and Mozart to the stormy and dramatic music of the 19th century Romantic Era of music. The latter shattered the conventions of 19th century harmony and opened the door to vast range of music that would come in the 20th century.

Guest conductor Larry Rachleff, music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, will lead the final concerts of the 2016-17 Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 19-20, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Tickets start at $18 and only $5 for students. Tickets are available by calling the Grand Rapids Symphony ticket office at (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or by going online to

Participants in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Symphony Scorecard or Free for Families programs are eligible to receive free tickets.

Rachleff, who recently served as Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music Advisor for two seasons between the departure of former Music Director David Lockington in 2015 and the recent arrival of new Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, returns to Grand Rapids.

Joining Rachleff is his wife, Australian soprano Susan Lorette Dunn, who will sing selections from French composer Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne.

Beethoven’s “Heroic” Symphony, premiered in 1805 in Vienna, opens with two mighty chords, announcing that the courteous and mannered music of Haydn and Mozart, as well as the 34-year-old composer’s earlier works, would now be consigned to the past.

Beethoven intended to nickname his Third Symphony “Bonaparte,” for Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general he admired. After Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven revoked his dedication and renamed it, “Sinfonia Eroica to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Beethoven’s large-scale, ambitious work was chosen last year by BBC Music Magazine, in a survey of 151 working orchestra conductors, as the greatest symphony of all time.

In contrast to the bittersweet symphonic work of Beethoven, Grand Rapids Symphony will open the concerts with Claude Debussy’s, sensual, evocative Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

Though no more than 10 minutes long, the revolutionary work that opens with a languorous flute solo is truly original in form, musical vocabulary, and execution. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, inspired by a poem of the same name by Stéphane Mallarmé, sometimes is compared to the lush and dreamy works of Wagner, but taking less than half the time to play.

In contrast to the big, expansive orchestra works of the late 19th century, Debussy wrote this groundbreaking work for a smaller ensemble. His concern isn’t with melodic and harmonic development but with instrumental color and timbre that unfolds with exotic turns of phrase that paints a picture of a dreamy landscape.

Nor is he concerned with telling a story, calling it “a very free illustration of Mallarmé's beautiful poem.”

Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne is a set of folk songs collected from the Auvergne region of France, set in the local language known as Occitan.

Composed between 1923 and 1930, the songs for soprano and orchestra transform folk music into high art.

Songs that will be sung include Malurous qu'o uno fenno, a playful bourée exploring the dilemma whether it is better to be in love or out of love; Lo fiolaire is a sensuous tribute to a beautiful girl, spinning at her wheel, complete with the sounds of her wheel in the refrain; and Lou coucut, a song about a noisy cuckoo.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 07:00
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