Maurice Ravel at Carnegie Hall
On March 7, 1928, French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) celebrated his 53rd birthday in New York at a party given for him by Canadian-American mezzo-soprano Éva Gauthier. Among the guests was 29-year-old George Gershwin (1898–1937). During the party, Gershwin thoroughly impressed Ravel with an impromptu performance of Rhapsody in Blue and the song “The Man I Love.” Ravel apparently had such deep respect for Gershwin’s natural melodic gifts that he turned down Gershwin’s request for composition lessons, telling him, “It is better to write good Gershwin than bad Ravel, which is what would happen if you worked with me.”
Their mutual admiration would be curiously mirrored by the circumstances of their deaths—within five months of each other—less than 10 years later. Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, after undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor; Ravel, whose health was declining steadily due to a neurological disorder known as Pick’s disease, died on December 28, 1937, following a similarly unsuccessful brain operation.
On March 8, 1928—the day after his birthday party—Ravel conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He concluded the program with La valse, a work that received its New York premiere at the Hall in 1922 with the New York Philharmonic under Willem Mengelberg. As with many of Ravel’s pieces for full orchestra, La valse started out as a solo piano work; pianist and composer Dimitri Tiomkin (1894–1979) gave the first American performance of this original version at Carnegie Hall on November 9, 1927.
Although Ravel’s 1928 tour marked his only visit to the United States—and featured just a single performance at Carnegie Hall—Ravel also attended a concert of his works given at the Hall on January 7, 1928, by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The program included Suite No. 2 from the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (which the orchestra had performed at Carnegie Hall for the work’s New York premiere on January 10, 1918), and so delighted the audience that “I had to appear on stage,” as Ravel remarked to his brother Edouard. He was thrilled to see the entire audience “all on their feet, a tremendous ovation, including whistling.”
Altogether, more than a dozen of Ravel’s works received significant premieres at Carnegie Hall, including the following:
- Le tombeau de Couperin (New York Premiere, orchestral version) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux: December 2, 1920
- Menuet antique (New York premiere) with pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch: March 10, 1923
- Alborada del gracioso (US Premiere, orchestral version; originally composed for piano as part of the suite Miroirs) with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra: January 1, 1925
- Boléro (World Premiere) with the New York Philharmonic and Arturo Toscanini: November 14, 1929
- Piano Concerto in G Major (New York Premiere) with soloist Sylvan Levin and The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski: November 8, 1932
- Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (New York Premiere) with soloist Paul Wittgenstein and Serge Koussevitsky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra: November 17, 1934
- Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (US Premiere) with baritone Daniel Harris and the National Orchestral Association conducted by Leon Barzin: March 23, 1936
- Shéhérazade (US Premiere) with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas: May 4, 1975
Photography: Program advertisement courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.
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