French composer Claude Debussy undoubtedly remains at the forefront of impressionism in music. He may have denied it, shrugging off the movement as a mere label, but as of today, he’s the first to come up in a quick Googling of the musical genre. The next to come up in the search, other than “La Mer,” “Clair de Lune” and a few of his other staples, might be his Préludes. Capped at a few minutes apiece, these bite-sized works for piano are perfect for anyone new to his works. However, the Préludes are not solely for the unfamiliar, as they can be calming delicacies to frequent listeners of Debussy as well. To a performer especially, these pieces offer a range of emotional possibilities; each piece, like a character sketch in an artist’s sketchbook, has a distinct essence and spirit to explore.
Last Sunday, saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and pianist Matthew Fries brought Impressions of Debussy (Rathbun’s latest album) and a jazz tribute to the Préludes to the Kerrytown Concert House stage. The venue welcomed Rathbun and Fries as part of their weekly live stream, “Live @ The 415.” The month of March marks one year since the series first aired, and since then, the venue has consistently been offering free virtual concerts to the public. The venue’s move to online streaming has played a role in keeping Ann Arbor’s music scene alive. From the music of cabaret to the sonatas of Beethoven, “Live @ The 415” continues to bring a wide selection of performers to Ann Arbor.
The virtual concert opened with a recent composition by Fries, titled “Quarantine” — a nod to this past year. Despite its name, as Rathbun later pointed out to the audience, the piece carried a “slight air of optimism” with its lively rhythms and flourishes. Though written back in September, the composition was a perfect fit for last weekend, depicting a world more hopeful for the end of quarantine. With a brief cut in the live stream’s audio, the piece’s namesake was a gentle reminder that of course, it wouldn’t be quarantine without the technical difficulties.
The program continued with works from Debussy’s Préludes for solo piano, reimagined by Rathbun in a jazzy saxophone and piano duet. Drawing from Debussy’s signature color palette, Rathbun interpreted the Prélude No. 10 “Canope” with a similar sentiment as the original, while emitting a much livelier feeling. Debussy’s “Canope” had hints of the delicate and the ethereal, whereas Rathbun’s interpretation seemed more grounded in its elements.
Similarly, his reimagining of the Préludes’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and “Footsteps in the Snow” brought an earthiness to the originals — a color of voice that is absent in Debussy’s instrumentation and only available through the introduction of a second voice by way of the saxophone. By arranging Debussy’s Préludes for two instruments rather than one, Rathbun has made an interpretation tinged with optimism. The pianist of Debussy’s préludes is no longer alone, and while Rathbun’s version may have lost the striking solitary quality of Debussy’s original, it also brought a sense of companionship to Debussy’s lonely tunes. As a newcomer to jazz, I entered the concert unsure of what a jazz-classical crossover would look like, especially in a virtual setting. However, through Fries and Rathbun’s performance, I was able to appreciate the liveliness that a hint of improvisation brings.
Ending the program with “Half Nelson” by Miles Davis, the performers departed from Debussy and let loose into the upbeat rhythms of bebop. This tune was lighthearted and served as a swift final display of virtuosity from Fries and Rathbun. While distinct from the mellow qualities of the previous pieces, the finale was far from abrupt. Rather, it seemed that every part of their performance — from the original works of Fries to Rathbun’s Préludes to the ending bebop — was produced from the same lens.
For listeners across the entire spectrum of music genres, “Impressions of Debussy and Beyond” brought both a relaxing afternoon listen and a promising vision of the future to Kerrytown.
Daily Arts Contributor Priscilla Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.