On his first and only North American tour, Maurice Ravel arrived in Chicago on Jan. 17, 1928. He had spent the night on a train, traveling from New York City. One of his major concerns about the four-month tour was his cigarettes — where to get his favorite French brand. When he left France by ship in December 1927, with him were many changes of clothes — both day and evening wear — and a trunk full of French wines (Prohibition was in full swing) and his favorite French cigarettes.
Ravel (whose works will be performed Feb. 20-25 and Feb. 27-March 1 at Symphony Center) was impressed with Chicago, its energy, architecture and general ambience. The day after his arrival, he conducted a morning rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and then went up to the top floor of Orchestra Hall for a luncheon at the Cliff Dwellers Club. He, of course, was the guest of honor.
He played a recital of some of his works that evening at the Congress Hotel with violinist Jacques Gordon, then CSO concertmaster, and American soprano Lisa Roma. One of the pieces he presented was his jazz- and blues-infused Sonata for Violin and Piano, a perfect selection for Roaring ’20s-era Chicago. Ravel’s performance on the piano, though, was looked upon with disdain by critics. “Only a supreme ironist would consent to play his own beautiful music in public as badly as Ravel plays it,” wrote Glen Dillard Gunn in the Chicago Herald & Examiner.
On Friday, Jan. 20, he conducted the CSO in his Le tombeau de Couperin Suite for Orchestra, Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, some Debussy pieces he had orchestrated, his Shéhérazade and La Valse. For this performance, the critics were more accepting. “The fascinating part was to note how his mind worked. He has imagination, poetry, exquisitely delicate sense of color and fascinating rhythmic elasticity,” wrote Karleton Hackett in Chicago Evening Post.
The audience loved him and his wonderful music, so full of exotic colors and textures. The orchestra, in a grand gesture of respect, played a tusch, a short fanfare symbolizing the musicians’ esteem and admiration.
The following day, the program was repeated but Ravel did not appear onstage — at least right away. Many observers, including Stravinsky, would remark that Ravel was not a handsome man, but he was a great dresser. As Madeleine Goss recounts in her 1940 book Bolero: the Life of Maurice Ravel, he was such a great dresser that in this instance, he refused to appear on stage without the appropriate pair of shoes. The shoes could not be located anywhere backstage, and finally, in an act of desperation, Lisa Roma, the vocal soloist in Shéhérazade, jumped in a cab and headed for the train station, where most of Ravel’s luggage had been deposited for the trip to Cleveland, the next stop on his tour.
At the station, Roma rummaged through trunks and suitcases, found the shoes. She then returned to Orchestra Hall, where the concert began only 30 minutes later than scheduled.
Ravel would spend several more months on the North American continent, appearing in such far-flung locales as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Omaha, Denver, Minneapolis and Kansas City. When he returned to Paris, within a few months, he produced one of the most popular pieces of orchestral music ever written, his Bolero.
Chicago-based writer Jack Zimmerman has authored a couple of novels, countless newspaper columns and was the 2012 recipient of the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award. He currently works as subscriber relations manager for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
PHOTOS: While on his 1928 tour, Maurice Ravel (seated at the piano) celebrates his birthday with friends Oscar Fried (from left), Eva Gauthier, conductor composer Manoah Leide-Tedesco and composer George Gershwin. INSET: Ravel, with an ever-present cigarette, marks the score of Bolero.