Paul Paray

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.


Paul Festa
October 22, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

The name of Paul Paray is not likely to ring a lot of bells
outside of Detroit, where he led the local orchestra between 1952 and
1963. As a conductor, the Frenchman had a busy and long career, working
nearly until his death in 1979 at the age of 93. But as a composer, Paray
was something of a recluse, conducting his own work infrequently and
promoting it little. Imagine Emily Dickinson making a career giving
readings of other people's poems, and you have a rough idea of the
musical life of Paul Paray.

But just as Paul Paray was not quite as artistically reclusive as
Dickinson, nor was he as gifted. The works on this disc show a composer of enormous
competence and occasional brilliance. But there is an experience one
craves when discovering neglected works: it is that of wondering how on
earth such magnificent art could have wound up in the trash bin of
musical history. In the case of Paul Paray, you are always on the verge
of asking yourself that question, but before you can ask it, you are
already coming up with a couple of answers.

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In the first place, Paray was hopelessly conservative. While Arnold
Schoenberg was reinventing harmony, Elliott Carter was reinventing
Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage was reinventing music, Paray was content
to work with minor and major triads and the sonata-allegro form.

The listener, weary of the cacophonous invention that characterized so
much of this century's musical avant-garde, might thank Paray for his
conservatism. But the fact remains that in 1935 there was only so much
left to be said in the musical language of Johannes Brahms and
Cisar Franck. And so, perhaps inevitably, Paray winds up sounding
quite a bit like -- surprise! -- Johannes Brahms and Cisar
Franck. Both tough acts to follow, particularly since Paray did not
possess an extravagant talent for development. In these relentlessly
classical works, many of Paray's fine tunes and motives simply get worn
out by unembellished repetition by the time the movement is through.

While it may not warrant a permanent place in the repertory, Paray's
music is certainly worth a listen. There are wonderful elements here:
classical grace, French Romantic exoticism, a quirky and vital sense of
humor. This music can be enjoyed for its own sake; but it might also
remind you how much you appreciate Brahms and Franck and, for that
matter, Emily Dickinson.


Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of disciplineandpublish.com and a frequent Salon contributor.

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