This week, the Philharmonic will perform one of our most dynamic and eclectic programs of the year. The concerts will feature members of the Langroise Trio on Ranjbaran’s Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, a piece written for and premiered by JoAnn Faletta, a mentor of Maestro Franz’s and a guest conductor here last season, and on Don Quixote, the monumental Strauss tone poem.
But the piece that has been exciting and terrifying me for months in anticipation is Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I’m tremendously excited because it is landmark piece in the history of orchestral music, one of my favorite works in the repertoire, and because of its incredibly rich and fascinating flute part. The little bit of terror mixed in with this excitement is because of the importance this piece holds with all flutists. The piece begins with about 20 seconds of the flute playing completely alone, and Debussy’s gorgeous flute writing plays a prominent role throughout. Like all orchestral flutists, I’ve been working on this piece, especially the famous first four bars, for many years, studying it with all my teachers, listening to dozens of recordings, practicing it for countless hours. This will be the first time, however, that I’ve had a chance to actually perform it in an orchestra.
Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is inspired by an equally groundbreaking poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that is considered one of the seminal works of French Symbolism. The very sensual dream-like poem describes a faun, a mythical half-goat half-man creature from Roman mythology, and his encounters with various nymphs. Debussy’s music pushed the boundaries of what can be done with orchestral music, both in terms of the colors he is able to create in his orchestration, and his divergence from traditional tonal harmony. The flute solo at the beginning displays this striking departure right away, with its sinuous chromatic melody that outlines a tritone, in this case C# to G, a notoriously dissonant interval. When the orchestra enters at the end of the solo with a sweeping wave of sound, it is a beautiful and exotic sonority, still giving the listener no sense of a grounded tonal center. Then, Debussy suddenly provides an entire bar of silence, as if he wants the strange and evocative soundscape he’s just created to really sink in.
To be sure, other composers had been experimenting with breaking the mold of traditional harmony before this piece was premiered in 1894, but Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun arguably pushed classical music further into the modernism of the 20th century than any other piece. And in stark contrast to the chromatic grandiosity of composers like Strauss or Wagner, Debussy does this in a remarkably subtle and restrained manner. It is impossible for us to imagine what Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun might have sounded like in 1894, but to me, it sounds amazingly new and bold even today. Pierre Boulez, the iconic French composer and conductor, said of the piece that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music." What a responsibility and a privilege to be able to perform this music!