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Dutoit conducts The Firebird Review- An all Stravinsky concert by the CSO

By Debra Davy

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On Thursday evening, May 19, 2016, guest conductor Charles Dutoit of the Royal London Philharmonic conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Stravinsky concert at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, with the second piece presented as part of the CSO Premier Retrospective for it’s 125th Anniversary season. The concert program was presented again the following afternoon, and two of the three pieces were presented on Saturday evening, May 21st, along with a Prokofiev piano concerto, concluding two weeks of  terrific concerts conducted by Dutoit, spanning May 12-21st.

First on the program was “Fireworks”, (Opus 4), composed in just six weeks in 1908, the first piece by Russian born American expatriate Igor Stravinsky the CSO ever played, in 1915. At less than 5 minutes in duration, “Fireworks” is a short but dazzling showcase for orchestra, which Stravinsky composed for his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, who died before Stravinsky could present it to him. The work is notable for masterful instrumental effects, a harbinger of his later masterpiece, “The Firebird”. The opening theme is developed through the use of fugue and canon, the orchestra tightly controlled by and responsive to the sweeping gestures and absorbed facial expressions of Dutoit, clad in impeccable black tails. “Fireworks” is also known for it’s significant role in moving Stravinsky toward fame, as it caught the attention of the Ballet Russes, which led directly to the “Firebird”, Stravinsky’s first ballet.

Conductor Charles Dutoit; photo courtesy of Aline Paley

Next on the program, before the intermission, was “Symphony in C”, 1938-1940, composed on commission during a very disturbing-in fact, awful- period in the composer’s life. In 1937, Stravinsky was diagnosed with tuberculosis- his wife and his two daughters had already been sent to a sanitorium in Switzerland with the same ailment. His wife and one daughter succumbed to the disease, followed swiftly by the death of his mother. The mourning Stravinsky was forced to leave Europe due to World War 2, after completing the first two movements. The next two he completed in the U.S. While the piece, approximately 30 minutes long, has a traditional four-movement structure, Stravinsky himself conceded that the symphony is divided into two stylistic halves. The first two movements are more traditionally rhythmic and harmonic, the second two are more chromatic with modulating rhythms. The piece has been called “entirely abstract”, and was later choreographed by Martha Graham, who called the dance “Persephone”. While Stravinsky denied that the events of his life are reflected in this music, it contains an elusive sad quality, and it was certainly rarely performed in Stravinsky’s lifetime-except by him.

Finally, the second half of the concert was given over to the wondrous ballet “The Firebird”, the full 1910 version written for that year’s Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, with choreography by the incomparable Michel Fokine. The ballet is based on the Russian fairy tales about a magical glowing bird that can be both a curse and a blessing to it’s owner, and it also mixed the mythical Firebird with another and unrelated Russian tale, about the evil magician “Koschei the Deathless”, who cannot be killed and abducts the hero's wife. There is a suggestion that the evil magician is also a Tsar, and the ballet contains 13 Tsarist-princesses. This reviewer, reflecting on the role of "the mad monk", Rasputin in the last Tsar’s family, and the subsequent events of 1917-18, cannot but marvel that the ballet was an instant hit; it certainly paved the way for Stravinsky's later ballets and brought him fame.

Poster for the concert; photo courtesy of Debra Davy

The complete 50-minute ballet score, written for a large orchestra including three harps, a piano and quadruple woodwind, stands in contrast to three shorter suites composed for smaller orchestras, arranged by Stravinsky himself. There is no concensus in the musical/dance community for the naming of the versions, of the movements, or of their numbering. However, there is a strong history of this beloved piece being performed and recorded in the 116 years since it was composed. Indeed, even those unfamiliar with the piece will recognize the portion used as the opening of the series “StarTrek”.

And who better than Dutoit to conduct this “marvel of atmospheric impressionism”? In 1984, Dutoit, than with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, recorded both “Fireworks” and “The Firebird”, along with “Scherzo Fantastique” on Decca. in the recording, and here in Chicago, the account given of this piece under Dutoit's baton was beautifully played, seductive, detailed, lustrous. The maestro conducted the intricate score with a deft and precise surety, eliciting the beauty of the challenging score.

Charles Dutoit leads the CSO; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

Chicago will miss the residency of Charles Dutoit.

For information and tickets to more wonderful concerts at the CSO, go to www.cso.org


Published on May 23, 2016

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