Monday, February 12, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Chicago Symphony Performs Stravinsky, Higdon, Chausson and Britten

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Ricardo Muti, perform and eclectic program of modern music that featured works by Stravinsky, Jennifer Higdon, Chausson and Britten.

The concert opened with Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 (1908).  As the low opus number would indicate, this was one of Stravinsky's earliest works and only his second for orchestra.  Composed as Stravinsky's studies under Rimsky-Korsakov were coming to a close (the latter died in 1908 without ever having heard his protege's work performed), the fairly short piece demonstrated the distance Stravinsky had already traveled from his  mentor's influence.  Despite the fact that it was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck's La Vie des Abeilles and was later adapted as a ballet (against the composer's wishes), the Scherzo was not so much a programmatic work as an exercise in creating orchestral effects.  Even so, I could at times make out passages whose sound did in fact remind me of the buzzing of a swarm of bees.  That aside, the work's greatest significance was the impact it had on Sergei Diaghilev who heard it when it was premiered at a St. Petersburg concert in 1909 alongside Feu d'artifice.  The two works impressed Diaghilev deeply enough that he commissioned Stravinsky to compose the score for The Firebird a year later.

The next work was the one everyone had come to hear, or at least those who'd read the favorable press the piece had received at its Chicago premiere earlier this month.  This was all the more remarkable as Higdon's Low Brass Concerto (2017) was not only written for more than one solo instrument but for brass instruments at that.  Like the Stravinsky piece, the Concerto was in one movement that alternated slow and fast passages.  The four brass intruments - two trombones, played by Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy; bass trombone, played by Charles Vernon; and tuba, played by Gene Pokorny - did not really have solo turns as such but instead generally played in combinations of two or three instruments as they interracted as much with one another as with the orchestra.  I found the work enjoyable, if not profound, and thought the composer did an excellent job in orchestrating the work for so large a number of instruments as were present onstage.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage to perform two strikngly different works that both took the sea as their theme.  The first of these was Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer, Op. 19 (1882-1892).  The prevailing mood here was not so much one of Romanticism, although the Wagnerian influences could clearly be heard, as of fin de siècle decadence.  This was in part derived from the text, a series of poems by Maurice Bouchor written in 1875 that dealt far more with anguished love than with the sea.  They were divided into two parts, La fleur des eaux and La mort de l'amour, sung here exceptionally well by mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, with an orchestral interlude placed between.  Because he died so young (at age 44 in a bicycle accident), Chausson never had an opportunity to fulfill his early promise and develop a voice of his own.  What works he left behind show a debt to other composers, particularly in this case to Debussy.  Nonetheless, Chausson's works are innovative in their own right and well worth hearing.  I attended several months ago a performance of his Concerto in D major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, Op. 21, written while he was still at work on the present piece, and thought it extremely accomplished.

The program closed with Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a (1945).  The opera was one of Britten's greatest successes.  Originally conceived while he and his partner Peter Pears were living in California as conscientious objectors to World War II, its story was taken from a narrative poem by George Crabbe that told of a villainous sea captain who murdered his apprentices.  Crabbe's poem was set in his native of Aldeburgh, a town on England's Suffolk coast that was not coincidentally also the birthplace of Britten.  Reading the poem and finding inspiration in it caused both Britten and Pears to return England where they immediately set about drafting the opera to a libretto by Montagu Slater.  The character of Grimes underwent a transformation as the work progressed; he metamorphosed into a much more complex individual, a loner who stands against a society that wishes to destroy him because it cannot understand him.  In that sense Grimes stood in for both Britten and Pears who felt ostracized not only as conscientious objectors but also as homosexuals.  The four interludes (selected from a total of six) had been written for no other reason than to fill the time needed to make backstage scene changes, but in themselves they surprisingly caught very well the entire spirit of the project.  Titled "Dawn," "Sunday morning," "Moonlight" and "Storm," they formed a suite that was almost symphonic in breadth exactly as if Britten had composed them as an independent tone poem.

The Chicago Symphony once again proved on Friday evening that it is a world class ensemble and its Music Director Riccardo Muti one of the greatest conductors now active.  I had wondered before the concert how well the program would work with such diverse pieces played side by side, but everything came together extraordinarily well.  I was somewhat surprised that the piece I enjoyed most was Chausson's Poème de l' amour et de la mer, a work I had never before encountered.

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