Having already attended performances of the Music of the Baroque, the Baroque Band, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, among other things, I thought I would give myself the ultimate pleasure in the city by attending a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had shied away from going to the CSO because I thought tickets would be really expensive. But once I accepted the notion that I didn't have to be right in front with the bourgeoisie and just focused on getting a seat that I liked, I ended up becoming a 5-concert subscriber. If the quality of the first concert is what I can expect for the rest, I am in for quite a time.
The concert did not have a German in sight. The concert began with four short pieces by Luciano Berio and concluded with Stravinsky's ballet of 1911, Petrouchka. Both works call for massive orchestras, and it was certainly fun to see such a large ensemble after having had a slight musical diet of baroque orchestras whose total compliment would be thirty. In this orchestra, the violins alone were thirty, with twelve violas, ten cellos, 7 basses, four flutes, two doubling piccolo, and on down the line. I think you can get the picture: big. In the middle, and the real reason why I chose this concert, the CSO was performing Les nuits d'ete, Op.7 of Hector Berlioz. Long established as one of my favorite vocal pieces (along with Britten's Serenade and Copland's Dickinson Songs), I was finally going to hear them live and with American superstar mezzo-soprano Susan Graham singing. Then, when you add in the expert conducting of Pierre Boulez, especially in this repertoire, the concert was guaranteed to be stunning, and it was.
The program began with something called Quatre dedicaces by Berio. A composer of diverse interests, as represented by his concerto for trombone, SOLO, and his reconstruction of Schubert's tenth symphony, Berio also wrote several short pieces for specific occasions. Four of these, Fanfara (1982), Entrata (1980), Festum (1989) and Encore (1978/81) were performed under the afore-mentioned title given by Boulez, and together began the concert with a strong whiff of modernity. The four were written during the late 1970's and 1980's, and they call for a large orchestra, even if all the effort is for twelve minutes. As you might imagine, they were cacophonous creations, and all the musicians were noticeably paying close attention to their music, as was Boulez, who was giving the precise beat with his batonless hand. The works had much going on, but it never reached the border of noise. The pieces reminded me of busy cities, with cars and pedestrians going in every direction, all with their own agendas, but seemingly making up what city life is as a whole. Strings, divided in all sorts of ways, would do their thing, as the many winds, brass and percussion would add their trajectories. The little pieces even required the presence of piano, celesta and organ! They buzzed along to their conclusions and were a raucous beginning to this concert.
Over half the musicians left the stage for the performance of the song cycle of 1840. Although Berlioz can certainly cull together huge orchestral forces, he pared himself down to an intimate orchestra for the magical accompaniment to the songs. I first fell in love with this set when I purchased a two-disc set that had a performance of Romeo et Juliet, his choral symphony. Such a large work, it spills onto a second disc, and added as filler was a wondrous performance of the songs by British mezzo Dame Janet Baker. Her rendering of the second song in the set, Le Spectre de la Rose, stays with me long after I hear the disc. That staggering benchmark was what Susan Graham was up against, and for the most part, she lived up to that standard. She was truly brilliant in the middle songs, Sur les Lagunes being a morose affair filled with painful resignation. But the world shifted as she sang Absence. The first line, "come back, come back, my best beloved!" was followed by a long, heavy pause, as if Graham were calling out into the void. It was overwhelming and each stanza was treated so differently, but always came back to that mournful hail. The final song, L'ile inconnue, about a boy asking his girl where in the world she would like him to take her, was perfect, each person being evoked as their words came forth. The song cycle ends with quiet as the boat with the lovers moves off into the distance. It was a beautiful performance, and just like Baker's, stayed with me for a long time.
Petrouchka, a strange ballet about the anguished life and death of a puppet, is considered one of Boulez' specialties. The massive orchestra together again, the four scenes of the ballet were played without pause. That was a problem for me because I am not very familiar with the ballet nor its identifying sounds. So, the music went by as a thirty minute tone poem, with many evocative and colorful passages. Boulez was in clear command of this piece. With a small flourish from his hand, a piece of the orchestral color would come to the fore and then melt back in. I also noticed how Stravinsky used the instruments in so many different combinations. Early on, you would have a small tune played by bass clarinet doubling clarinet, with the flute buzzing through quick arpeggios and that would lead into another fragment played by celesta. At one point, two performers were needed to play the celesta, while another person played the piano. Another example is when the flute has a wondrous solo, but is accompanied by four cellos only. There is no way to tell in a recording, but it was fascinating to see those orchestral choices. Seemingly ever instrument had lush solos, the flute being expertly played by Mathieu Dufour, whose whole head would move up and down as he played staccato notes, and Larry Combs on clarinet, whose face turned bright red as he played. As I listened, I just became more enamored with the music of Stravinsky and was thankful that the CSO under Haitink and Boulez decided to focus on French and Russian music this season. As the ballet came to its quiet ending, with the ghost of the puppet Petrouchka having the last laugh, and the audience broke out in rapturous applause, I was glad I decided to get tickets to the CSO because they are, truly and confirmed, one of the best orchestras in the world.