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Salome's Seduction: A Poetic Symphony

This spring, French conductor Fabien Gabel returns to Orchestra Hall with Salome’s Seductiona concert that brings a nostalgic remembrance of the French-infused programs curated by former DSO Music Director Paul Paray in the 1950s and 60s.

It seems to me that the story relates to lust – to the “forbidden” – which is what shocked people. Oscar Wilde’s play was deemed “pornographic” in its time. Irresistible to musicians, the music they created was precisely to defy the prohibitions — to provoke — with such a subject. ”

Fabien Gabel, Conductor; florentschmitt.com via Vivace ! magazine

To declare something risque or controversial oftentimes rouses curiosity. There lives a fascination with the forbidden – a “what-if” psychology that challenges the formalities of society. Art defies these limitations, creating a type of freedom where what-ifs can rumble wildly. 

And when the subject stirs conversation, intrigue grows, leading more people to be in relationship–to some extent–with the artwork. 

The story of Salome fits snuggly in this brow-raising scope. A princess born to a power-obsessed family filled with corruption and selfishness, her existence in the biblical and mainstream arena is one that blends religion and eroticism; power and manipulation; actuality and imagination.  

In Christian theology, her brief and nameless mention makes a lasting impact, as she is known for her role in the beheading of John the Baptist, whom she also loves. Salome is the daughter of Herodias who is married to Herod Antipas of Judea– a union that was denounced by John the Baptist. For this, he was imprisoned and became a revenge target for Herodias. Opportunity presented itself during a birthday banquet for Herod Antipas, where  his lust for Salomé (his young stepdaughter) was centerstage as he made an oath to give her whatever she wanted after her dance had pleased him  and his guests who consisted  of  nobles, military commanders, and leading men of Galilee. Her request at the wish of her mother: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Reluctantly, Herod granted her wish and Salomé presented her mother with John’s head.

This narrative extends beyond  the Gospel passage Mark 6:14-29, and has been adapted for creative works across visual and performing arts. Biblically, Salome is a representation of unrighteousness. In popular culture, she is the archetype for a femme fatale. 

The fixation over Salome became hyper-prominent in the 1800s with Gustave Moreau’s famous oil painting Salomé Dancing before Herod, (1874-76). A French symbolist artist, Moreau’s piece was among the earliest to not focus on John the Baptists’ head on a platter. Instead, Moreau illustrates Salomé dressed in a bejeweled and cross-cultural costume, holding a lotus flower in her right hand, and extending her left arm in a firm gesture while Herod is sitting upon his throne in the background.

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Fascination surrounding Moreau’s painting piqued the interest of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, resulting in his French one-act play, Salome, written in 1891. The plot was set against the New Testament and embellished themes of lust and perversion–much of this exalted in Salome’s dance before Herod and his male guests. 

Wilde sought out an orchestra to create a sound that resonated with the crazed intensity of a “woman dancing in her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain.” (Writer’s note: after taking his head to her mother, Salome kissed it passionately—a detrimental act prompting Herod’s order to kill her.) The play was forbidden in Britain due to its biblical characters and censored during the period because of its “pornographic” nature, but made its Paris debut in 1896.

The playwright’s body of work serves as the impetus for artistic interpretations that followed–with core inspiration being pulled from the infamous “Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils.” A German translation came in 1900 with the Hedwig Lachmann production of Salome; that version served as the libretto to Strauss’s 1905 opera of the same name–which has come to overshadow Wilde’s original piece with its psychological tonations of good vs. evil demonstrated through dialogue and music. 

The DSO program, Salome’s Seduction, features the DSO premiere of Mel Bonis’s 1909 work, Salome, Op. 100; and the U.S. premiere of Anders Hillborg’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra featuring German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, who brings an illustrative depth and versatility to the piece. Building the historical intensity of the narrative, also included in the program is Strauss’s famous Salome’s Dance from Salome, Op. 54, and Florent Schmitt’s La Tragedie de Salome, which was staged for a ballet in 1907 and is recognized as one of Schmitt’s most prominent works.  

As The Orchestra Plays... 

Salome’s Seduction takes audiences on a lyrical ride, rich with scenic sound and emotional valleys–true to the characteristics of the impressionist era. 

Bonis’s Salome is atmospheric and mellow. The brevity of the composition charms the ear with sensual tones, excites with a sense of mystery, and climaxes with passion and destruction. 

The transition into Hillborg’s Concerto for Cello, plays as an eloquent soundscape with Altstaedt’s low register peaking at key moments. But the piece travels, making room for a surge of sound that calls upon the orchestra to deliver a polyphonic wave of crisis and chaos before settling emotions. At its core, the lyrical quality and instrumentation is intimate, creating an aura of longing and loneliness. 

Strauss’s opera Salome was banned in London and Vienna due to its religious context; but made its world premiere in December 1905 at the Semper Opera House in Dresden. The composer’s fixated gaze on Salome’s dance before Herod, choreographed into the center of the action, had early audiences criticizing the moral standards of the opera. But the music was undeniable. Strauss’s ambiguous tonality and chromaticism built an intense and eventful series of haunting, memorable harmonies. Though audiences were disturbed by the fusion of the biblical and hyper-sexual, the premiere was successful and the work was performed at 50 additional opera houses within two years. The DSO most recently performed “Salome’s Dance” in May 2001, conducted by Stefan Sanderling and first performed the piece in February 1936, with Victor Kolar conducting.

The DSO also has history with Schmitt’s La Tragedie de Salome, having performed the symphonic suite in April 1972, conducted by Sixten Ehrling, and first performing the piece in December 1952, under the direction of Paul Paray–who reportedly gave the most first time performances of Schmitt’s composition than other conductors. Schmitt’s layered composition marks the fatal conclusion of a wildly scandalous account. Described by music critics as “one of the best examples of French tone painting,” the 21-minute score consists of two theatrical parts with themes of seduction, guilt, and demise. The orchestra elevates the drama with intense and vigorous play. 

The moody tonality prepares audiences for a climactic journey where the storytelling is amplified by spirited musicality, and the virtuosic Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 

The DSO’s French Connection

Throughout the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's storied history, there have been magical moments where innovative leadership comes along and inspires new ways to imagine what’s possible through sound and musicianship. 

Ossip Gabrilowitsch set that caliber for Detroit and guided the orchestra to becoming one of the world’s finest. His tenure and vision as music director (1918-1936) sparked a Golden Age of the Detroit Symphony, the actualization of Orchestra Hall and its superior acoustics, and the orchestra’s first recordings in 1928. 

Fast forward to the 1950s and here enters highly accomplished conductor Paul Paray, a Frenchman with a bold sonic aesthetic that ushered the DSO into a new golden era of recording with the Mercury Living Presence series. These famous recordings included “Paul Paray conducts Dances of Death,” a four-track disc that features Strauss’s and Schmitt’s Salome-centered compositions–works that inspired Gabel and DSO President and CEO Erik Rönmark’s French-centric program for the institution’s 2021-2022 season. 

The French sound can be described as colorful, emotionally charged with lyrical depth that requires an orchestra capable of skillful flexibility: blending precision and atmosphere; discipline and expression to produce a warm yet eventful and refreshing sound. These elements became part of the DSO’s musical arsenal under Paray, and with this, the orchestra thrived. He curated programs that featured the works of Ravel, DeBussy, and Berlioz, among others. But, also elevated less renowned composers of the twentieth century, such as Florent Schmitt. 

'I think [Paray] being a champion of that, as a musician, really brought the standard of the orchestra up to a different level,' says Rönmark. 'I think he felt like he had an orchestra that was capable of doing what he wanted and how he wanted to approach this music; and he was really about the artistic quality [and] the precision of [it] all.' ”

In the DSO recording, “Paul Paray conducts Dances of Death,” he directed the works of Listz, Saint-Saens, Strauss, and Schmitt. With compositions known to appeal to conductors for their dark undertones, Paray chose to emphasize the lyricism within the dance. The result is a lighter but deeply inspired approach that sounds playful, menacing, and flirty but always precise and colorful. 

Though one performance is never identical to another, there’s room for the curious to wonder if Gabel’s approach to both Strauss and Schmitt will have remnants of Paray’s audacious style. 

“It was really interesting with Fabian because this is where it goes in cycles with conductors; Florent Schmitt's music was really championed by Paray, and I think for Fabian, being French, being fascinated with Paray, and also growing up with those recordings, he values the memory of Florent Schmitt and his music and wants to make sure that it continues. I think we were known for the French sound under Paray, so some of it is a legacy, but I think there's also some truth to that living on, maybe not as apparent in what you hear, but in the psyche of people,” Rönmark assesses. “That's what happens, the transmission of information and how you play continues.” 

With Gabel’s deep cultural connection and sensitivity toward the score and its composers, the musical experience is destined to fill Orchestra Hall with chords that fuel suspense, passion, desire, and impulse. 

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