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Chicago Symphony - The Rite of Spring

With David Robertson - music director of the St. Louis Symphony - guest conducting, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took the stage this weekend in tribute to Director Emeritus Pierre Boulez and some of his favorite composers to celebrate his 85th birthday. The program included Olivier Messiaen - Les offrandes oubliƩes ("The forgotten offerings"), (1930), Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (1935), and the inimitable Igor Stravinsky's , Le Sacre du Printemps, ("The Rite of Spring"), (1913), perhaps the most important classical work of the 20th Century. Its premiere was extraordinarily controversial and it is widely regarded as the birth of modern music.

I was held fairly rapt by the Messiaen, which I'd never heard before. The single movement work is in A-B-A form: a haunting chorale between the winds and strings sandwiches an intense and cacophonous middle section showcasing the brass. I have never been a much of a fan of the CSO strings since I've been listening to them live (1997 when I moved here) but they really had a soft touch tonight. I hung on every chord change, surprised right to the end. After listening to the above You Tube link, however, I must say that the live performance I heard doesn't match the edge and fireworks you'll hear there in the B section.

The Berg also left me wanting more. Not to say it wasn't greatly entertaining - I was also experiencing this piece for the first time as well. Kyoko Takezawa was a capable soloist, and the concerto itself was not the austere, atonal piece I was expecting. It was actually quite tender, if a bit ham handed towards the end.

After the intermission I sat down in my seat with a lot of anticipation. Rite of Spring is one of my favorite pieces and the CSO is known for playing it well. In fact, I'd most recently seen it performed at Orchestra Hall two years ago, staged with Hubbard Street Dance. Le Sacre's history is steeped in legend ever since its 1913 Paris premiere caused an infamous riot.

Anticipation became excitement that grew through the tenuous opening strains of the bassoon and other winds, only to peter out and die as the metronomic rhythm began in the strings. It should've been savage and brutal, yet was only anemic. This continued throughout the performance, with only flashes of brilliance revealed, usually in the brass. The back row still has it and always has, although I am sad to say Dale Clevenger (principal horn) is getting noticeably old. The percussion truly stood out here, the bass drum in particular. The primality that was missing elsewhere roared forth in the famous bass drum roll, and many times she carried the entire orchestra on her shoulders.

The entire performance was still very good, but not great as is almost counted on. Still, not really the group's fault here, I'm going to venture. Much of the time, Robertson seemed to just be beating time, content to the let kids run the class room, and as expected, the quality suffered a bit. The CSO is famous for bullying guest conductors, and it is no coincidence that the orchestra's best years (although it is still ranked #5 in the world by Gramophone) were under the totalitarian regimes of Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti.

Overall, not the best performance I've seen down on Michigan Avenue, but individual stars did shine brightly, enabled by a smart program highlighting the trailblazing greats of 20th Century music.


Julian said...

Ahh but the Stradivarius from 1710 that Kyoko was playing certainly was a treat to the ears. And just across the street on display is The Supper at Emmaus We're a lucky town indeed.

brianfmorrissey said...

Oh, she was good. I just never know how to critique string players. But, a 300 year old axe? I wonder if she got it on craiglist?

(Note to self: Thursday hate topic - pretentious assholes who call every instrument an axe.)