This is an exciting and sure to be exhausting week of concert-going for me, with performances to attend every night from Tuesday through Friday, and if I feel up to it, an additional one on Saturday (I probably should go to it, but sometimes enough is enough).
Last night was the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie, the second of two concerts. Pierre Boulez was on the podium, and greeted with exceptional warmth and enthusiasm, and Susan Graham was featured, singing Les nuits d’´eté, and it was another fine night in the concert hall (I realized last night that I have a built-in advantage in going to Carnegie, and one I’m not sorry for; visiting orchestras prepare, generally, interesting and varied programs for their performances and give them extra rehearsal time. Why not? They want to bring their best, to show what the can do, especially when they hit New York. I remember this phenomenon from being a regular at the San Francisco Symphony – the programs that the orchestra were going to take on the road were generally the best of each season).
I enjoy hearing orchestras from different cities and discerning particular characteristics that make them stand out. Contrary to a current commonplace trope, I don’t find that the sound of orchestras has become homogenized, there are still refreshing differences. It’s true that particular regional and national style of playing, that had to do with a combination of instrument construction and pedagogy, are virtually gone – French orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic do not have the strong and strange flavor they used to, but they are still distinguishable. I’ve previously written about how the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco sound to me, and now that I’ve finally caught the Chicago group in concert, I can say that to my ears they absolutely maintain the strong brass sound they have been known for since Fritz Reiner was the music director.
With Boulez, who is a marvelous conductor, you get even more. The concert opened with a collection of miniatures from Luciano Berio, Quatre dédicaces, an effervescent and compelling score for a large orchestra with lots of activity. What Boulez does so well, and demonstrated last night, is bring clarity of sound to every voice in the orchestra while allowing the music to fully express itself. Combine with the CSO, the result is amazing sonic detail, color, precision and still weight and power. The Berio piece is full of complexity, and the conductor laid it clear.
Berlioz’s vocal piece as wonderful. The tempos seemed to precisely chosen, and though the opener, Villanelle, was appreciably slower than I’m used to hearing, it was a well-judged decision. Graham really opened up in terms of sound and phrasing, and the tempos allowed her to essentially speak while singing. She has a fairly large following and is a wonderful singer. Conservatories and stages are full of singers with great voices who are yet not great musicians, who sing the notes but don’t have any ideas about the phrases or the charms of the words. Graham is different; she has a great deal to say about the music, and great sympathy for it. The sensation she gave was of voicing Berlioz’s intent and doing so with great beauty of sound and charm. She enthralled the audience with The Spectre of the Rose and got immediate, warm applause for it. I savored ever phrase, and Boulez again worked his magic on the score, opening it up for all the unexpected and even weird sounds that the composer created.
The big piece at the end was Pétrouchka, in the original 1911 score. This has always been one of my favorites from one my most important forebears. It’s the piece where Stravinsky becomes Stravinsky. If The Firebird is still mostly Rimsky-Korsakov, and The Rite of Spring is the final explosion of Romanticism, the outer edge past which it cannot hold, then this ballet is the work that simultaneously shows the composer’s Russian roots, the millieu of its creation – simultaneous musics were also happening in the works of Mahler and Ives – and the precise, propulsive rhythmic structure that would be the foundation of his Neo-Classical masterpieces. This score is also a speciality of Boulez’s and I think that, himself a composer attracted to sonorities, he can’t resist that dazzling color of the score. The color was dazzling – what reaches the ear through the conductors thinking and hands is like wonderful menagerie of dancing stars. It’s very easy to please with this music as it is so appealing, but this performance did something that I find rare, which was to actually convey the drama, the story and especially the tragedy amidst all the wonder. A great deal of this was tempo, where again things were just slightly slower than usual. The tempo seemed to allow space for so much life, and room for the soloists to add their ideas. The Shrovetide Fair was truly alive, full of characters, and the final hushed note was the puppet’s ghost itself, leaving us to wonder. Cue massive, deserved ovation.
Tonight, Des canyons aux étoiles at Juilliard!