Even with an absent Boulez, his offbeat, mostly Stravinsky CSO program provides rewards

Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 1:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke performed  songs of Ravel and Stravinsky with the CSO Thursday night.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke performed songs of Ravel and Stravinsky with the CSO Thursday night.

The absence of Pierre Boulez from his scheduled two weeks of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts this month (for unspecified “health reasons”) is unfortunate. Yet through the magic of technology, the CSO’s conductor emeritus was on hand Thursday night—sort of.

Boulez provided video introductions to the works on this substantially Stravinsky program, which were projected on a large screen over the stage. Despite canceling, the 88-year-old conductor-composer looked well and his insightful comments on the music in his heavily accented English added to the evening.

Cristian Macelaru has become the official sub for Boulez’s annual cancellations and the conductor did a largely worthy job handling this offbeat and challenging program, in which he was coached by Boulez. It’s too bad the concert was so sparsely attended, with rows of conspicuous empty seats.

The intriguing lineup freely mixed small-scale rarities and morsels by Stravinsky and Ravel, anchored by two larger, more familiar works for full orchestra. All of the seven works were written between 1911 and 1920, at a time when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire were roiling the European music scene, and Paris in particular.

The evening proved illuminating if the presentation at times came across as didactic and logistically awkward. In preconcert remarks the CSO’s Martha Gilmer said that Boulez requested that the audience hold its applause until the end of each grouping of short works. Yet continuity was immediately lost after the first orchestral work, which was followed by ten minutes of stagehands clearing away chairs and music stands. Was furniture moving part of the evening’s thematic motif as well?

Of the several works presented, the intimate songs for mezzo proved the most rewarding. In Ravel’s Trois poemes de Mallarme, Sasha Cooke’s lovely voice and expressive singing brought out the varied qualities of these three settings with refined artistry, with the quiet melancholy of “Soupir” especially notable. The mixed octet of CSO members and the excellent pianist Kay Kim provided equally sensitive support.

Cooke was equally assured after intermission in Stravinsky’s Cat’s Cradle Songs. With her Russian sounding just as idiomatic as her French, Cooke conveyed the gentle whimsy and folk element of these children’s songs. Stravinsky’s quirky scoring for a backing trio of clarinets proved equally diverting.

Though almost Webern-like in their concision, Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics and, to a lesser extent, Two Poems of Balmont make sure impact with very few notes. Unfortunately Jennifer Zetlan’s shallow soprano provided little pleasure, turning shrill and glassy on top.

John Bruce Yeh delivered a personality-plus performance of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet, rendered with warm singing tone, jazz-like freedom and blistering bravura.

Stravinsky’s massive oeuvre is packed with little-known gems and his Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra is one of them. Drawn from his chldren’s piano pieces, this brief work (four movements totaling less than seven minutes) is utterly beguiling, and Macelaru and the CSO members delivered a snappy and vivacious performance.

The two larger orchestral works that framed the evening proved more of a mixed bag.

Debussy’s ballet Jeux had the misfortune to be premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes just two weeks before the Rite of Spring was unveiled by the same company. The more subtle work was completely lost in the surrounding furor over Stravinsky’s ground-breaking Rite.

As Boulez noted in his video introduction, Jeux—which was Debussy’s final completed orchestral work—is just as revolutionary in a more quiet way, with its suggestive qualities and constantly shifting nuances.

With such a packed and complex program to prepare, something was bound to suffer and, unfortunately, Jeux seemed to get the short end of rehearsal time. Macelaru was an efficient and fluent hand, eliciting a well-played and refined performance. Yet this Jeux missed the allusive mystery and languid sensuality of the music completely. Too much of this delicate score was loud and literal, the stormy climax sounding like La Mer with tennis balls.

Also while having the song lyrics projected on the screen made sense, I’m not sure anything was gained by running the complete scenario of the ballet’s narrative simultaneously with the Jeux performance. The long descriptions of the scenario’s dreamlike menage a trois ultimately proved a distraction, forcing one to read the titles rather than listen attentively.

The concluding performance of Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet Pulcinella proved much more successful. Chicago heard a terrific performance of the complete Pulcinella last October from the New World Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, one of our finest Stravinskians.

Macelaru didn’t quite plumb Stravinsky’s wry yet affectionate riff on Pergolesi with the idiomatic touch and audacious panache of Tilson Thomas. But this was a buoyant and enjoyable account of this irresistible score, played with clear engagement by the orchestra. The CSO principals shone with concertmaster Robert Chen bringing a warm yet echt-Baroque expression to his violin solos, Eugene Izotov floating a sinuous oboe solo in the Serenata, and Mathieu Dufour’s flute playing first-class throughout.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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