Today is Maurice Ravel's birthday. Here's a New York memoir.
“Thirty premiers in one season,” said Steph, as she put down her wineglass. “There’s never been anything like it.”
We were having drinks at the Ginger Man, across from Lincoln Center, prior to catching an evening performance at New York City Ballet’s Ravel festival in 1975. It was an era of extravaganzas in New York, the like of which may never be seen again. The Ravel centennial was followed a year later by the Bicentennial, and ten years after that by the 100th birthday celebration of the Statue of Liberty. Oh, and the birthday bash for the Brooklyn Bridge a couple years earlier. Looking back, that astonishing decade was, for me at least, peak New York. And to kick it all off, the Ravel festival. City Ballet uncorked the party, and it never stopped until the last jewels of the last skyrocket burned out and fell from the night sky over Lady Liberty in New York harbor a decade later.
The waiter brought fruit cocktail. “What’s your favorite?” Steph asked.
“Loquats and grapefruit segments.”
I pondered. “It depends. . . ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ for walking my wits. ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’ for sheer sensationalism.” The beat-up baby Baldwin at the loft had a long biography.
“I love—Miroirs,” Steph said in emphatic French.
“Now there’s a French word that can’t be pronounced without diving in.”
“Dive right in, that’s me,” she said.
In the twilight outside, a clan of Indians drifted past, the women in filmy flowing saris, immaculate and traced with gold.
“Everybody complains,” I said, “that the heavenly chorus in ‘Daphnis et Cloe’ has been so exploited and re-exploited by Hollywood that they can’t listen to it anymore without seeing Dorothy Lamour in a sarong. I don’t agree. To me the music is mint.” Steph pinched a strawberry and eyed me suspiciously. I was on to something. “For me it doesn’t matter how much the music—notable, original music that is—how much it’s been hacked, spun off, or sent up. There’s always a freshness. An indelible stamp. Like a watermark, the originality shines through. Know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Steph said, “The music anticipates its exploitation and rises above it.”
Ravel’s music, for all its precise and trenchant brilliance is imbued, for me, with sensual pleasure. If Debussy is the aurora borealis — vast, enveloping, and warm—Ravel is a sparkler, glittering and fizzing right before your eyes. The best of Debussy provokes a sort of grief, a first-cousin of love. If encountering Ravel’s chrystaline beauty brings a tear to my eye, chances are there’s a rainbow in it.
The only Ravel that Steph could play was his ‘Pavane’. On flute. She would read the melody line while I accompanied on piano. An excursion that the two of us embarked upon a couple of times: an intimate outing. The famous elegy is poignant. Pavane for a dead princess, Ravel had named it. But even the Pavane has a sheen, a hint of effervescence. It’s tristesse sec.
Steph claimed to be nervous about the ballet—even that of Balanchine and Robbins—which have their own sumptuous and abstract glamor. She had always enjoyed their work, but one’s favorite music acquires, over the years, ineffable associations. Seeing it visually articulated, especially by those two, could be unnerving.
“You have nothing to worry about.” I said. “Unless the orchestra sucks. And that’s not going to happen. The music will be there. City Ballet’s dancing is like listening to Howard Cossell announce a game when you favorite team’s playing. It’s gravy.”
“I’m not sure Mr. B. would appreciate the analogy.”
“Are you kidding? Anybody who compares ballerinas to performing horses. . .”
Steph was tapping on the table, the snare-drum’s tattoo at the start of Bolero. Every adolescent who’s ever cocked an ear at classical music knows about Ravel’s top hit, long before Bo Derek overstated the obvious. The piece is a high-concept thrill machine with (as Ravel once said) “no music in it.” Of course there is music in it. A poignantly summoning, endlessly unfolding melody, and its equally haunting counterpart, a response in a minor key, are restated again and again, the only variation a continual ante-up. A characteristic Ravel crystallization: the two melodic themes, while highly evocative, are also a relentlessly efficient vehicle for advancing the crescendo. Like a Pollock painting, which contains nothing but paint, but has no painting in it, Bolero is outside music.
“The gong at the climax was a precursor of heavy metal.” I said, not quite kidding. “It was one of the first instances of a sound effect, of pure noise, used as a direct musical corollary for orgasm.” And wasn’t that exactly the point of metal? There’s no music in it.
“But Ravel knew something about foreplay,” she said.
Abstractly, humoresquely, I plucked a grape out of the compote and carefully rolled it across the table. It reached the foot of her glass where it came to a stop. We drained our glasses. We darted across Broadway. Then we were in the near-panicked festivity of the State Theater. Bodies nudged and chasse’d. Acquaintances quipped past. Amidst babble and whiffs of Dioressence, we were swept past Jasper Johns' big silver alphabet painting, and flashlighted to our seats.
Eleven years later, almost to the day, we would be sitting together on a fire escape in Staten Island, a bottle of Mouton Cadet between us, transfixed by the sight of the boats in the harbor, all crowding around Lady Liberty. There were a couple of thousand, at least. Great tall ships, aircraft carriers, the Staten Island Ferry and blazing white Greek liners. And small craft. Hundreds upon hundreds of little boats, their windshields all glinting minutely in the sun. A galaxy of flashing mirrored fragments. The harbor was ablaze, and soon after nightfall the sky would respond.
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