Dutoit, CSO take flight with full-feathered “Firebird”

Fri May 20, 2016 at 2:10 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Stravinsky program Thursday night.
Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Stravinsky program Thursday night.

For the second and final week of his Chicago Symphony Orchestra residency, Charles Dutoit devoted Thursday night’s program to Igor Stravinsky with two early works of the Russian master and one neo-Classical item with a strong Chicago connection.

The most familiar music of the evening was, of course, The Firebird. The first of three ground-breaking ballets that the young composer wrote for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, Firebird made Stravinsky famous and remains his most-performed music, often in one of the “highlight” suites the composer later excerpted.

Dutoit elected to present The Firebird complete and in its full plumage with Stravinsky’s original orchestration. The expansive palette adds a myriad of textures and colors, including three harps, celesta, Wagner tubas and triple and quadruple winds.

Dutoit led the orchestra in an uncommonly fresh and refined performance that brought out the mystery, strangeness and atmosphere of the score. There is much wonderful music in the full ballet that rarely gets heard, as with the Daybreak section, the Magic Carillon, and Ivan’s entrance into Kastchei’s Castle.

The wide range of dynamics and multi-hued tones were consistently painted in allusive brush strokes while Dutoit maintained  firm narrative momentum. There was daunting power in the bravura sections such as Kastchei’s Infernal Dance, yet what came across most strikingly was the Gallic quality of the score. With meticulous balances and playing of striking transparency under Dutoit, one was consistently made aware of the subtleties of Stravinsky music, with contrapuntal figures audible in even the familiar sections that are often buried by lesser hands.

In its ballet version, Firebird is even more of a concerto for orchestra than in the suites, and the front-stand players consistently rose to the challenge with inspired contributions by hornist Daniel Gingrich, clarinetist Stephen Williamson,  oboe Michael Henoch, and guest flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly (associate principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).  Yet most impressive was the beautiful, climactic solo of the extraordinary Keith Buncke. The CSO’s young principal bassoonist continues to illuminate the orchestra’s performances every week with playing of individuality and poetic distinction.

It was 76 years ago that Stravinsky led the CSO in the world premiere of his Symphony in C, a  work “composed to the Glory of God and dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of its existence.”

During the three years in which he worked on the CSO commission, Stravinsky lost his mother, wife and one of his daughters to tuberculosis and was hospitalized himself with the same disease.  Yet, as always with this most objective artist, there is hardly anything of the personal in his symphony, a largely playful and optimistic work that bears little sign of Stravinsky’s concurrent tragedies.

Dutoit led a bracing performance that made a strong case for this still-neglected work. The motoric rhythms of the outer movements went with fleet, jaunty vigor, yet Dutoit pointed out the contrasts deftly throughout, as with the quasi-lullaby of the Larghetto (aided by a lovely and stylish oboe contribution from Michael Henoch). It’s hard not to feel some degree of valedictory expression in the stately brass chorale at the coda, which was given just the right somber eloquence by Dutoit and the musicians.

 It was Fireworks that first brought Stravinsky wide attention, and the lively miniature made an apt curtain-raiser. Dutoit led a vital and brassy account that did justice to the composer’s snappy four-minute musical jest, underlining the typically inventive scoring touches and shifting accents.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. On Saturday the Symphony in C will be replaced by Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by Lang Lang. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Dutoit, CSO take flight with full-feathered “Firebird””

  1. Posted May 21, 2016 at 12:36 am by Jacob Hildner

    Hear, hear! If stage acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing, as somebody once said, the same could be said of classical music performance, a test that the CSO (through no fault of its own) often fails. And yet, this Stravinsky program, by commanding full attention, seemed to suppress extracurricular noise. It made a great case for the enchanting, sophisticated Symphony in C. It also made a great case for attending live performances. The Firebird is a magnificent musical drama that, last night anyway, didn’t suffer for lack of dancing. You could feast your eyes instead on the orchestration in action, delivered to the ear with uncommon precision and grace. It was a wonderful night, for great music and a great orchestra.

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