Yo-Yo Ma and CSO members offer diverting range of French chamber works

Mon May 18, 2015 at 12:15 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Yo-Yo Ma and Alexander Hanna performed the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin's "Dual" Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Yo-Yo Ma and Alexander Hanna performed the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s “Dual” Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

After orchestral, operatic, and solo piano programs, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Reveries and Passions” festival of 20th-century French music continued with a concert of chamber music at Symphony Center on Sunday afternoon, featuring Yo-Yo Ma in collaboration with several CSO musicians.

The concert opened with a performance of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, a setting of poems by the Viscount de Parny, who spuriously claimed to have translated them from Madagascan folk songs. The songs were performed by mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, with accompaniment from Yo-Yo Ma, flutist Jennifer Gunn, and pianist Orion Weiss.

Bridges has a wider, less focused tone than one is used to hearing in Ravel, in whose music greater clarity is often valued. However, these songs are not typical Ravel: they are almost Schoenbergian in flavor, in spite of Ravel’s own protests to the contrary. Ma complemented the timbre of Bridges’ voice by likewise employing ample vibrato. This approach turned Ravel’s music into something more Expressionistic than usual.

But the main liability of the performance was Bridges’ struggle with French diction. In a piece such as this, which has patches in which the singer intones the text with minimal melody above a simple accompaniment, a lot depends on the sound of the words themselves. The French vowels become an essential component of the music, a component that was lost in Bridges’ distinctly American pronunciation.

Next was the world premiere of Dual by Matthew Aucoin, the young composer who also currently serves as assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. The piece was played by Ma and CSO principal bassist Alexander Hanna. The title and the composer’s own note on the piece might lead one to expect a fairly even collaboration between the two instruments, but the piece felt more like a concertino for cello with bass accompaniment.

This was partly a matter of the bass’s low frequencies naturally projecting less well; and partly a result of Ma’s phrasing, which was more emphatic and angular than Hanna’s more subdued approach. But it seemed mostly the result of a bass part that—minus the lyrical melody at the very end—was just less interesting than its cello counterpart. Greater textural variety might have added more interest to a piece that seemed to rely primarily on rhythmic drive and much repetition of a basic idea.

Things picked up for the remaining two pieces. The first half of the concert closed with a performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ma and Stephanie Jeong, associate concertmaster of the CSO.

In the first movement, Ma and Jeong treated the vigorous moments as isolated dramatic events, unfolding out of an otherwise placid background. But their second movement positively crackled throughout with crisp rhythms and snappy interplay. The remaining two movements were on the same high level: with the catchy rhythmic figure that runs through the finale dancing off of the player’s strings.

The second half of the program was devoted to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Ma was joined by Weiss, CSO principal second violin Baird Dodge, and clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom.

Another prominent participant was the lighting, which changed between movements: a multi-colored stained-glass effect for the opening, pink wash for the third movement, etc. This was mostly nonintrusive until the lighting for the penultimate movement, “Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time,” literally illustrated the movement’s title by flickering through the colors of the rainbow. This felt superfluous: the onus should be on the musicians and not on stage effects to conjure the requisite spectrum in the minds of the audience.

The ensemble work was impressively tight in the unison passages that appear throughout the second, fourth, and sixth movements. But the finest moments were the solos, which Bloom and Dodge took standing up.

The clarinet solo in the “Abyss of Birds” movement should seem to emerge out of silence, but the audience coughed, rustled their programs, and shifted in their creaky seats throughout the movement. So, instead, Bloom’s exquisite solo—full of long-breathed languor and infinite shades of softness—emerged from a constant background of noise, as if the bird were back in the woods.

Ma’s cello solo in the fifth movement was expertly controlled: the warmth of tone, the degree of vibrato, and the volume were all subtly manipulated. Weiss and Dodge’s duet in the finale was notable for the contrast between their approaches. Weiss’s playing grew more vehement as each crescendo peaked; but Dodge’s sound was serene and pure, even at louder volumes. It was like hearing two sides of the closing prayer simultaneously: the contemplative and the impassioned, distinct but combined.

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