Conductor Charles Dutoit’s association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has only strengthened in recent years; he returned to Orchestra Hall this week for the second time this season with a program to headline a program with a distinctly French flavor. The presence of the Swiss French Dutoit on the podium was reinforced by the premiere of a newly commissioned piece for the orchestra by French composer Guillaume Connesson, a flute concerto written for the CSO’s principal flutist, the Paris-born Mathieu Dufour.
The program began with Paul Dukas’s La Peri, a work that began with a clarion call from the brass section, serving to wake up the crowd and showcase the CSO’s signature players. The brassy beginning gave way to a more mellow and subdued playing from the string section, giving the piece a modulated feel overall, thanks to Dutoit’s signature style, which tends to produce a smooth, toned-down sound that tries to balance the power of all the sections of the orchestra.
Dukas’s piece was then followed by the flute concerto by Connesson, Pour sortir au jour (Going forth by day,) a work intended to evoke a funeral procession in ancient Egypt. Like the Dukas work, this was a tone poem, but one that was unmistakably French in idiom; the piece is subdued, with elegant string-playing, but an eccentric, at times amusing, deployment of various pieces of percussion like a wind machine and marimbas that, in addition to some slightly hackneyed use of woodwinds, gives the piece a slightly Orientalist feel.
Dufour’s playing, however, was a highlight of the evening; his virtuosity, long appreciated in Chicago, was on full display and justified the composer’s faith in the flutist’s skill. Connesson’s composition for the instrument was slightly clichéd, though it’s difficult to fault him for this, as there is only so much that can be written for flute, and the combination of the solo playing as well as the orchestral backing, particularly that imaginative use of percussion, made the piece the best one premiered by the CSO that I’ve heard this year, though this is not saying that much.
The symphony on the program was Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, and despite the fact that this piece is well-entrenched in the standard repertoire, Dutoit and the CSO, with Paul Jacobs at the organ, made the piece seem as good as new. Dutoit’s approach was predictable; he modulated the horns, though at times he seemed to over-emphasize the crescendos in order to compensate for the milder passages. The playing that he drew from the strings was focused, remarkably cohesive, and beautiful; from the staccatos to the longer notes, every effect was precisely brought off, and while it may speak to ample experience on the part of composer or the orchestra, the string section was as excellent as they've been all season.
Jacobs’ performance on the organ was that of a true team player, not a flashy star; his contribution in the second movement was an impressive job of laying the foundation for the piece’s harmony, a subtle effect that I hadn’t appreciated in this piece in the past. His more prominent part in the piece’s finale was a resounding success as well, but his playing never drowned out the equally impressive contribution of the orchestra. Jacobs did play more of a starring role in a pre-concert recital of twentieth-century Parisian organ pieces; unfortunately, I missed this performance as I was unaware of it until it was too late, a missed opportunity that I regret.
The playing of the orchestra become more intense and loud as they reached the conclusion of the final movement, an effect similar to that of a racehorse whose jockey has held it back until they make their move in the final stretch. This move seemed calculated by Dutoit to bring the show to a resounding conclusion, and it worked like a charm on the Orchestra Hall audience, who responded generously to the players, the conductor, and to the soloist who, at Dutoit’s insistence, took his curtain calls on the podium as the maestro stood to the side, drawing a few chuckles from a thoroughly entertained audience as Dutoit ushered Jacobs up to his place of prominence. Who says you can’t laugh at the symphony?