Dutoit, Ma illuminate French rarities with CSO

Fri Mar 20, 2015 at 3:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Robert Chen and Yo-Yo Ma perform Saint-Saëns’ "La muse et le poete" with Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Robert Chen and Yo-Yo Ma perform Saint-Saëns’ “La muse et le poete” with Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In the second and final week of his March Chicago Symphony Orchestra residency, conductor Charles Dutoit continued what might be called his festival of Intriguing Non-Masterpieces by French Composers.

Except for one Ravel standard, none of the works heard Thursday night were regular concert-hall visitors. And even with Yo-Yo Ma as the evening’s soloist, the program of unfamiliar Gallic works made for a surprising number of scattered empty seats, unusual for a Ma performance. When did Chicago audiences become so unadventurous?

The CSO’s creative consultant was heard in two rarely heard French works, the first in its belated CSO premiere.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ La muse et le poete is a late curio, a 16-minute concertante work for cello and violin. Like the non-concerto piano works in last week’s CSO program, La muse et le poete is a tough work to program but it’s a small gem, well laid out for both soloists with a typical charming fount of Saint-Saëns’ melody, perhaps with a deeper vein of autumnal melancholy.

Though there is no specific program, it seems the cello represents the restless tortured poet and the violin is a calming lyrical muse. The stage personalities of the two soloists suggested the opposite of their musical roles, with concertmaster Robert Chen’s casual sobriety the polar opposite to Ma’s ebullient intensity. The cellist kept turning to his violin colleague as it to say, “Come on, let’s have some fun with this!”

Musically, however, they made a fine duo in this compact duo-concerto, Chen playing with sweet violin tone against the slender sinew and hectic bravura of Ma. There was equally dedicated support from the orchestra under Dutoit’s focused direction.

Lalo’s Cello Concerto hasn’t been heard at a downtown CSO concert since Ma last performed it here 15 years ago. It’s an attractive and rewarding work for the soloist, even with rather fitful inspiration. The herky-jerky finale is episodic and Lalo’s repetition of loud orchestra chords set against the soloist’s flights in the long opening movement grows tiresome after the first dozen iterations.

Still, Ma brought typically committed and impassioned advocacy to the solo role, with bristling bravura in the virtuosic sections and leaning into the lyrical flights, only occasionally indulging his mannerism of extreme pianissimos. Here too Dutoit and the CSO members provided fully engaged and energetic accompaniment.

The one repertory work of the evening was the opener, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Dutoit is without peer in this repertory, the Swiss conductor pointing contrasts in a flowing, natural fashion with limpid and graceful playing. Audiences have heard some gifted guest flutists in recent months but Randy Bowman is the finest to date. Principal of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Bowman played in a wonderfully rich yet pure tone, fitting in superbly with the CSO winds.

Debussy’s music for The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, written for the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, was that rarest of things, a scandal cause celebre that still managed not to sell at the box office.

As the title suggests, the Four Symphonic Fragments from the Terpsichorean “mystery play” don’t make a cohesive whole but they are intriguing late shavings from Debussy’s workbench, atmospheric, evocative and orchestrated with idiomatic flair by Andre Caplet. Dutoit led a luminous performance that brought out the sensual languor and hazy brooding expression, with especially fine contributions from trumpeter Chris Martin and English hornist Scott Hostetler

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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