Navigating 'La Mer' with MSU's Kevin Noe

Oct 26, 2012

The MSU Symphony Orchestra’s October 26 concert at Wharton Center features Mozart’s Haffner Symphony #35 and Debussy’s La Mer. WKAR’s Melissa Benmark spoke with MSU Director of Orchestras Kevin Noe about the program, and how he characterized the symphonies from this period of Mozart’s writing.

KEVIN NOE: Well, they’re awesome, for starters. It’s obvious he’s at the height of his creative output in terms of balancing the form and making everything seem really rounded and somehow as perfect as we’ve come to associate with Mozart.

And the one thing is because they’re the best ones, allegedly, they’re played the most often, so they’re known the best by the audience and the people playing them, and that’s a cycle that continues to make them better and better. You know, as you play the canon over and over, you just get used to it.

I don’t know that the fundamentals of the language are changing. Mozart was not, to my mind, much of a progressive composer. That’s not a slam at all. But he was very much a man of his time, and he did that time better than anyone, I suppose.

MELISSA BENMARK: Debussy’s “La Mer” is the other major piece on the program, and I really have a hard time figuring out how I feel about that piece. For lack of a better word, it feels kind of adrift to me, which being about the sea, I suppose that makes sense. What’s your emotional take on where he was going with this—just imitating nature with no people, no literary, no human input at all?

NOE: It’s interesting; my study process began with just this question. I spent a great deal of time, many, many hours, thinking about, especially, the first movement because that’s where you begin. What is this work about? The first few notes tell you a great deal. And trying to decide whether or not this was about Debussy’s relationship with the sea, meaning his feelings about the ocean. Which, to some degree, how could it not be? Even if you tried not to make it about that, it would still, to some degree, be about that. Or was this instead somehow more objective?

And I came to the opinion, right or wrong, that each of the three movements has a slightly different vantage point. That the first movement is very much about a view of the sea. Meaning that you’re not in the sea, you’re not swimming around in it, and you’re not, therefore, surrounded by its mass, but that you catch the impression of the sea. And in the first movement, it’s a rather surface-y impression.

Again, that is not meant to be a negative about the depth of the work, which I find magnificent on all levels. But I think it’s about the kind of surface shimmer that you have on the ocean. And it doesn’t necessarily belie the force and power of what’s underneath it. And I think he exercised great restraint in the first movement to try to capture that.

I think that the second movement is much more about the animation and the energy of the sea. And it feels like it has its own set of destinations that are not controlled by Claude (Debussy) as much as the first one. The first movement seems very carefully crafted. The second movement seems to dance to and fro at the sea’s casual whim and fancy more. So I feel like he maybe gave up some control there.

And the third movement, I think, is the attempt to capture both the raw power and majesty of the sea, tempered with maybe some of the negative things that can happen in the storm. People can be tossed around. There’s a famous story about him nearly drowning as a kid, and people have speculated whether or not that had a lot to do with his relationship with the piece, and the sea. I suppose how could it not, if you almost drowned? But I haven’t detected any negative in it, and I certainly don’t feel any fear about it.

A photo of MSU Director of Orchestras, Kevin Noe.
MSU Director of Orchestras, Kevin Noe.
Credit Courtesy / MSU College of Music
"I sense mostly from him awe in terms of the endless diversity of the sea, the complexity, and the size. The grandness is just almost uncapturable, and I don't think anybody did it better than him. He gave it a valiant effort. I think it's a masterpiece." -- Kevin Noe

I sense mostly from him awe in terms of the endless diversity of the sea, the complexity, and the size. The grandness is just almost uncapturable, and I don’t think anybody did it better than him. He gave it a valiant effort. I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s my first time with it, and studying it has been an incredible joy. Every day I learn new things.