Quirky mix of Stravinsky and Ravel makes for another winningly offbeat CSO program

Fri Feb 28, 2014 at 2:09 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

J'nai Bridges performs Ravel's "Chansons madecasses" with pianist-conductor Matthew Aucoin Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
J’nai Bridges performs Ravel’s “Chansons madecasses” with pianist-conductor Matthew Aucoin Thursday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The second and final week of the substantially Stravinsky programs planned by Pierre Boulez opened Thursday night with a pair of young conductors leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and both making their CSO debuts.

Yet even with the dueling maestri and a rather lopsided program—the second half offered just 19 minutes of music—the evening flowed better than last week with performances that proved even more consistent and insightful.

Once again Pierre Boulez offered trenchant comments on the music he selected via videotape and works for large orchestra framed the program: Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements opened the evening and Ravel’s Un barque sur l’ocean and Alborada del gracioso closed it.

Marcelo Lehninger, currently associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was in charge of the orchestral works. The Brazilian-born musician led a powerful, boldly projected reading of Stravinsky’s 1946 symphony with sharp, strident brass attacks in the opening movement. Lehninger likewise brought out the sardonic quality of the Andante’s march-like theme, though here the grip was not as consistently focused. With characterful bassoon playing by David McGill and Dennis Michel, the final movement was equally weighty with Stravinsky’s final D flat chord given an extra punch.

Lehninger was equally assured in the two Ravel works on the concise second half, both orchestrations of two movements from his Miroirs for piano. Une barque received a reading of dark majestic power that also blended a sea atmosphere and tonal refinement. Alborado del gracioso was boisterous, rhythmically taut and infused with riotous primary colors. McGill provided another evocative bassoon solo in the middle section, and the CSO percussion whipped up ample excitement in the coda.

Stravinsky’s quirky Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra was just as delightful as the First Suite heard last week. Also revamped from earlier piano miniatures, Lehninger and the CSO put across the jaunty wit of this wonderfully subversive music with huge panache.

The middle of the evening was again devoted to shorter chamber and vocal works and proved rewarding due to the vocal contributions of mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and conductor Matthew Aucoin.

Currently a young artist at the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, Bridges possesses a clear and flexible voice and her performance of Ravel’s Chansons madecasses was first class in every way.

The young mezzo brought just the right degree of sensual languor to “Nahandove” in a flowing and sensitive rendering. She put across the emotional intensity of the anti-colonialist “Aoua!” with bracing fervor and dusky chest tone without losing Gallic refinement or going over the top. The relaxed romantic essence of “Il est doux” was equally poised and expressive. The trio support by Aucoin at the piano, cellist Kenneth Olsen and Jennifer Gunn doubling flute and piccolo was on a comparably high level.

Bridges also showed herself charming in a lighter vein in Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki. She offered evocative yet knowing performances of these four atomistic Russian songs, all the more effective and amusing for being sung with wry understatement.

Aucoin, the CSO’s Solti Conducting Apprentice, looks substantially younger than even his 24 years. Yet he showed a sure style with Stravinsky’s challenging idiom, directing the chamber forces in personality-plus performances of the Eight Instrumental Preludes and Concertino that brought out the vitality, lyricism and humor of these rarely heard works.

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

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