Despite Pierre Boulez’s physical absence, announced two months ago when the French composer/conductor, who turns 89 next month, was bowing out of his concerts in late February and early March with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the visionary maestro’s spiritual presence and musical fingerprints were easily found at Orchestra Hall for the concerts he planned featuring the music of Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. The concerts that he planned are trying to remain as close as possible to the unusual approach with which Boulez, the CSO’s Conductor Emeritus, wished to attempt with the CSO’s forces. The programs have remained faithful to the early twentieth-century repertoire, of which Boulez has been perhaps the leading exponent for over fifty years, and his choices, which included several shorter pieces, including some obscure ones, were an antidote to the usual repetition of the standard repertoire, standard format followed in most classical concerts.
Boulez’s presence at the concert came by way of interviews projected onto a video screen that he had taped at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, offering his rationale for the way he programmed the concert. In the videos, Boulez explained that he was attempting to break up the usual overture-concerto-symphony format that is a comfortable, predictable approach to most orchestral concerts. Boulez, never a stranger to attacking any musical convention head-on (listen to or watch his at first-infamous, now-beloved Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle for evidence), is as obstinate as ever despite being nearly 90. For this concert, Boulez not only wanted to break up the format into smaller pieces, he wanted to insert smaller chamber pieces in between the larger orchestral pieces for a blending of two formats thought to be virtually incompatible. Using two examples of composers from his repertoire, Boulez explained that a Mahler symphony, with its sprawling length and grandiose ambition, can be matched in intensity and impact by a ten-minute piece by Webern for clarinet, but people don’t usually think to compare the two. With such ambitious goals laid out, it was exciting merely to see if the CSO, the conductors and soloists, would be able to pull off this unusual format.
The concert began with a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, conducted by the Brazilian Marcelo Lehninger. Beginning the concert with the symphony is an unusual move, but Stravinsky’s symphony is anything but a conventional symphony. Drawing heavily from the music of Bartok and, seemingly, jazz-like improvisations on the composer’s themes in Rite of Spring, the Symphony is not a unified work even in its individual movements. Stravinsky seems to change direction at will and uses the work to introduce innumerable little musical ideas rather than grandiose, sweeping, large ideas, which is a fairly accurate characterization of Stravinsky, one of music’s supreme visionaries.
Lehninger and a huge portion of the orchestra left the stage to make way for the “chamber” portion of the concert, in which the seating on the stage at Orchestra Hall was completely re-configured to give the strings the look of a concert ensemble, with the horns lined up in short rows behind them. This section of the concert was led by the up-and-coming composer Matthew Aucoin, whose impressive resume, which already includes an opera he is writing commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, would seem to indicate a meteoric rise. The setup for this section, using the CSO in a game of musical chairs, was more exciting than the actual music itself, Stravinsky’s Eight Instrumental Miniatures, several tiny pieces which continued the theme of small musical ideas though here, the ideas were too small to make any impact, even a surface hit.
The concert continued with Aucoin on piano, who, along with cello and flute, accompanied J’nai Bridges in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, several short lieder-like pieces set to poems. Bridges, a student of the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, has become a ubiquitous fixture in Chicago’s music scene, and it’s easy to see why. She is one of the more expressive vocal artists I have heard recently, and her commitment and effort cannot be questioned, though her voice is not especially distinctive. Here, she was handicapped by Ravel’s songs which, despite their anti-imperialist tone, were not exciting musically.
The ensemble had more success with Stravinsky’s Pirbaoutki, several short songs set to folk tunes accompanied by early-twentieth century instrumentation that call to mind Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, though Stravinsky’s piece came much earlier than Orff’s. It’s remarkable how much of the program called to mind the work of other composers: in addition to Bartok and Orff, we can hear a huge influence of Debussy’s La Mer on his countryman Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, which like La Mer, is a brilliant, idealized musical depiction of the sea, and we can hear the same Spanish rhythms and melodies that inspired De Falla in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, the last two pieces concluding the program with the full orchestra back in place under Lehninger’s direction. Though I don’t know if this was Boulez’s intention, or my imagination working overtime, but you can see in pieces like these, from which Lehninger drew furious playing from the CSO, an academic history of how different composers in the twentieth century influenced one another, a study of musical cross-pollination.
I have always wondered whether the CSO and ensembles like it ever get tired of playing the same pieces again, with a certain cycling of the old standbys over, say, a few years (or in some cases, every year.) These are the finest professional musicians in classical music, but because their audience is the broadest in classical music, they often feel unable to take more chances with their repertoire; to take an example of a well-tread piece (and a composer reviled by Boulez), I couldn’t help but wonder whether the orchestra was sick and tired of playing a piece like Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto which, despite its merits, has been played to death. New formats and relatively unfamiliar repertoire can invigorate and challenge a complacent orchestra, and, judging by what I heard from the CSO Thursday night, those prospects alone make these concerts as exciting as any this season.
Ravel and Stravinsky at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Center, 220 S Michigan Ave, February 28 and March 1, at 8 PM.
photo credits: Todd Rosenberg except headshot of Aucoin, which is courtesy of Matthew Aucoin