CCM closes Debussy Festival with (many) words and music

Mon Oct 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

By Gerald Fisher

Claude Debussy

The final program of the Chicago Chamber Musicians’ Debussy Festival unfolded in a venue that commanded nearly as much attention as did the music. The dark, understated, modern elegance of the city’s newest architectural landmark, the Poetry Foundation building located in the heart of the Near North, was an appropriate backdrop to the subtleties of the great French composer.

On hand were some Debussy rarities as well as a work by a close friend and follower, Andre Caplet, whose Conte Fantastique for string quartet and harp is an inspired meditation on Poe’s melodramatic Masque of the Red Death. CCM’s ever-changing roster of regulars and guests for Sunday afternoon’s concert included two Chicago Symphony principals: flutist Mathieu Dufour and clarinetist Stephen Williamson.

While these stars shone brilliantly as one would expect, there was superb work from the rest of the players, including some of Chicago’s best-known performers of chamber music.

The program’s concept was to marry poetic texts with the works they inspired. The first piece, Les Chansons de Bilitis, dating from 1901, interspersed readings in French of the Sapphic poetry of Pierre Louys with short but achingly beautiful interludes: Debussy at his most lush and polished. It was a rare pleasure to hear this music in the hands of such fine artists as Dufour and Eugenia Moliner, flutists, Cathy Litaker and Maria Rayan-Forero harpists and especially Marta Aznavoorian on the pointillistic celeste.

Poe’s complete original story was included in the rather excessive program notes to the Caplet and made clear the overwrought drama inherent in the subject. This drama was a bit muted in the performance which was adept and dynamic but not as foreboding and atmospheric as one might wish. Nevertheless a good case was made for this excitingly original score. The artists were Jasmine Lin and Desiree Ruhstrat, violinists, Rami Solomonow, violist and David Cunliffe, cellist along with Rayan-Forero, harpist.

The best poetry reading of the afternoon came from Mathieu Dufour, whose deft performance of an unidentified French text set the tone for a persuasive and refined performance of the exotic Syrinx for solo flute.

Finally the group tackled a chamber version of Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un faun which was quite a revelation, reducing the score to its essentials with the clarinet and double bass adding texture and depth to a strong string and harp section. The performance was nicely balanced and filled the moderately sized performance space ideally

The program notes left a lot to be desired in spite of the reams of paper included, most notably conflating the name of the Prelude’s transcriber, who was Fabrice Pierre, the harpist, and not Pierre Fabrice as noted.

The performance space was clearly intended for readings and not musical performances. The 125-seat glass-enclosed room was quite muggy Sunday filled as it was with a capacity audience. The sightlines were nonexistent after the first few rows, with no risers for the musicians; and the specially designed wooden chairs were hard and not ideally suited for long stretches of sitting.

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