Even with Boulez absent, CSO`s thoughtful program has the master`s touch
By John von Rhein
February 28, 2014
Despite the earnest efforts of Pierre Boulez over the last 40 years or so to liberate symphony orchestras from the rigid confines of hidebound tradition – in terms of both repertory and how that repertory is presented to audiences – few if any other classical musicians in positions of such authority have taken up his ideas. And fewer still are likely to do so after him.
That`s very sad, because the model for change as represented by the inventive programs the Chicago Symphony Orchestra`s distinguished conductor emeritus devised for the CSO subscription series these past two weeks is so rife with possibilities.
The absorbing assemblage of Stravinsky and Ravel works the CSO presented Thursday night at Symphony Center again showed how well the Boulezian plan for shaking up the standard programming template can work in practical terms. Nearly everything about it had his distinctive touch even though modernism`s greatest living master was an entire continent away.
As with the previous week`s concerts, Boulez supplied helpful verbal introductions via prerecorded video, while young conductors he has worked with – this weekend they are Marcelo Lehninger and Matthew Aucoin – shared podium duties.
Once again, orchestral, chamber and solo works by each 20th century composer were presented in sequences that asked audience members to listen and think more acutely about what they were hearing. They appeared to be doing just that, right down to observing Boulez`s wish that applause be withheld until the end of each grouping of pieces.
Much of the program was given over to Stravinsky works originally written for piano, including first CSO performances of his "Eight Instrumental Miniatures," Concertino and "Pribaoutki." Chips from the master`s workbench they may be, but that doesn`t make them trivial. In fact, like the Ravel song cycle "Chansons Madecasses" that also was having its Chicago Symphony premiere, they tell us much about the composer`s thought processes and invite us to consider his larger, more familiar works from a new perspective.
Although some 38 to 48 years separate the composition of the nostalgic settings of Russian nonsense limericks known as "Pribaoutki" and the orchestrations of early piano and string quartet pieces Stravinsky prepared for the Monday Evening Concerts series in Los Angeles in the 1950s and `60s, the three scores plainly are by the same composer: tart, aphoristic, unpretentious, wryly off-kilter in rhythm, meter and mood. Just because they may be made up of what Boulez calls "leftover materials" doesn`t make them any less worth hearing.
Ravel`s compact song cycle, which is scored for just voice, flute, cello and piano, caused a stir in Paris in 1925 because of the fierce anti-colonialism of its central song. This music is every bit as ravishingly sensual as the composer`s better-known cycle "Scheherazade." The songs suit the earthy vocal allure of mezzo-soprano J`nai Bridges, one of the rising stars of Lyric Opera`s Ryan Opera Center, who delivered them beautifully. She was supported appreciatively by flutist Jennifer Gunn, cellist Kenneth Olsen and Aucoin at the piano.
Both the "Eight Instrumental Miniatures" and Concertino are rife with display opportunities the various groups of CSO players under Aucoin`s efficient direction seized with conspicuous relish.
Principal oboe Eugene Izotov and concertmaster Robert Chen both made a meal of the gnarly difficulties of their extended solos. This marked the subscription series debut of Aucoin, the composer-conductor who is serving his first year as the CSO`s Solti Conducting Apprentice. (His program biography refers cryptically to previously unannounced operas he is supposedly composing for the Met and Lyric Opera.)
Framing the more intimate Stravinsky and Ravel works were bigger orchestra pieces that required "bigger" listening: the former composer`s Symphony in Three Movements and Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra, and the latter`s "Une Barque sur l`Ocean" and "Alborada del Gracioso." Lehninger, the Brazilian-born associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led all four pieces. He also was conducting the CSO for the first time, and an auspicious debut it was.
He brought less weight of sonority than crisp linear impetus to the Stravinsky`s 1945 symphony, sharpening rhythms and balancing textures in a lucid manner Boulez certainly would have endorsed. His skill at keeping things clear and well-organized also was apparent in the dry wit he brought to his razor-sharp account of the small-orchestra suite. This is extremely urbane music for all its flippant surface; Lehninger and his responsive players kept sophistication to the fore.