Exotica music welcomes spring on Walla Walla stages


The month of birds returning from migrations brings to mind Walla Walla’s linkage with far-flung regions of the world. Musically, we get a month of exotica, of musical tourism.

The big splash: the Walla Walla Symphony brings the Eugene Ballet for live performance of some of the world’s best-loved exotic pieces, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”

If you are unfamiliar with these works, prepare to be knocked flat at Cordiner Hall on March 29. If you already know them, you also know that they reward a lifetime of hearings.

First, “Scheherazade”. The piece is based on the famous frame tale of the Arabian Nights, in which a cynical and suspicious sultan, mistrustful of all women, has his wives killed after one night in bed. The clever Scheherazade, aware of this game, begins her marriage by starting a story while in bed. She leaves the story unfinished; it turns out to be a nesting of tale after tale after tale, which keeps the sultan’s attention for a full thousand-and-one nights. Thus forestalled, the sultan relents, and the girl lives. (Ironically: she’s the one who really pulled the wool over his eyes.)

Thus we visit the Near East. “Scheherazade” was composed in 1888 by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a professional army officer and self-taught composer. He had joined forces with four other composers to create a self-consciously Russian national idiom. They felt that Russian music was overly influenced by Western European models, styles, and ideas.

Oddly enough, these composers, while idealizing the Russian people, did so by creating tonal paintings of other places: Turkestan, Spain, Arabia and Persia. Exoticism was an intentionally adopted stance, a curious mirror-image nationalism.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s contribution was his astonishing gift for melody. His music is structurally unsophisticated but surpassing in melodic riches. Listen for the character of the simple but powerful sultan in the opening passages, and for the lovely Scheherazade in the exquisite filigree solos for violin.

As for “Bolero,” Maurice Ravel was already at the top of his game when he composed this famous piece, first performed in 1928. Many readers are already familiar with this work as it has made the rounds of popular culture, serving as soundtrack music in movies, television and figure skating.

It is a truly astonishing work because almost nothing happens, and yet it mesmerizes with its skillful manipulation of deliberately limited resources. There is no musical development except a constant increase in volume. The rhythm is dominated by a percussive beat that repeats changelessly for 17 minutes. Two alternating melodies float above, also repeated – the only changes being in the orchestration – until near the end when Ravel makes two key changes. Even Ravel said that the piece consists “wholly of orchestral tissue without music.”

“Bolero” was intended as a Spanish dance, performed as a ballet (thanks, Eugene Ballet!), and was also a late work of the exoticist movement.

If you, like Ravel, are drawn by Spanish dances and their gypsy flavor, take in a masterful performance of these Friday ((copy ed. note: FEB 28)) at Sinclair Estates tasting room by visiting guitarist Michael Partington, a world-class musician. He will play works by Spanish nationalists Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albeniz, Joaquin Turina and others.

Also Friday, Kazuo Fukushima’s “Mei” for solo flute takes us across the Pacific, or at least partway. His work combines contemporary Western music with traditional Japanese shakuhachi, inspired by Buddhist simplicity and the Noh dramatic tradition. Hear this stunning work performed by Whitman College’s Rachel Chacko in Kimball Theatre. She performs other works with pianist Jackie Wood and violinist Amy Dodds.

And while not exotic for the Czech nationalist Antonin Dvorak’s, his “Czech Suite” for orchestra, performed by the Whitman Orchestra on Friday at Chism Recital Hall, is so for us.

John Jamison teaches in the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College and serves on the board of the Walla Walla Symphony. He retired to Walla Walla in 2003 from a teaching career in Seattle. He can be reached at john@studiodosrios.com.


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