Every once in awhile, one hears a program that is so tastefully selected, so colorful, and so right that listening to it feels like the artistic equivalent of consuming a well-rounded meal.
So it was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Friday matinee concert, comprised entirely of pieces written in the last century and led by Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru. The program opened with a festive but lesser-known apéritif by Jacques Ibert, whetting the appetite for the two significant works to follow: Outscape, a newly-commissioned cello concerto by French composer Pascal Dusapin, and Gustav Holst’s beloved The Planets.
Which of the two was the main course, however, depends on who you ask.
As its name would suggest, Ibert’s Bacchanale is an extroverted, romping delight. Unlike bacchanales by Saint-Saëns, Wagner, and Ravel, however, Ibert’s rendition vividly depicts what a modern (that is, mid-twentieth century) bacchanal might sound like, complete with jazzy, Gershwin-esque riffs, bouncy oompah rhythms, and a drunken waltz. As always, the CSO’s brass provided awesome pillars of sound; a bittersweet moment arose when the orchestra peeled away to spotlight a brief solo by brilliant principal trumpet Christopher Martin, who will depart the CSO for the same post with the New York Philharmonic next year.
Co-commissioned by the CSO, Oper Stuttgart, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Outscape is the CSO’s only world premiere scheduled for this season. Initially, Dusapin wrote Outscape to depict a desolate, Arctic landscape—an almost unearthly “desert of snow.” Though the composer eventually parted with this specific vision in favor of an atmospheric abstraction, frigidity still permeates the score, from icy tremolos in the solo cello to registral extremes in orchestration that evoked a vacuum-like emptiness.
Though the piece technically lacks a key, it possesses a tonal center in the form of a single pitch: C-sharp. The cello begins on this C-sharp, and the bass clarinet—its musical partner-in-crime throughout—enters in a call-and-response on the same pitch. Dusapin, who previously eschewed all non-pitched percussion in his compositions, scores for an expanded percussion section, which tentatively punctuates this exchange as the orchestra builds around it. Even as the piece grows more complex, the principle established by these opening bars provides a basis for the rest of the piece. Though the cello may be timbrally at the fore, functionally, its voice serves to extend and support the orchestra. Excepting the sparky scherzando near the end of the piece—which pointedly highlights the cello’s rapid, sharply-accented sixteenth note runs—Outscape is less concerto than symbiotic relationship between soloist and orchestra. Intriguingly, when the piece does come to a close, it does so not on its C-sharp anchor, but on the B above it, leaving an air of the unfinished in its wake.
Dusapin composed Outscape with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in mind, and during Friday’s performance, piece and interpreter unified magnificently. Fingers flying, the American cellist powered through gnarly technical challenges with ease; her sensitivity of phrase and attention to nuances beyond those explicitly outlined in the score made this premiere performance one to remember. Macelaru, too, was an intuitive musical partner, guiding the orchestra through its seamless communion with the soloist.
Oddly, the Symphony Center audience seemed not to share my enthusiasm: as far as I could see, no one rose to give composer and soloist a much-deserved standing ovation.
The second half of the concert waded back into familiar territory with The Planets. Even for the inexperienced listener, Holst’s famous orchestral suite is difficult to avoid: if not quoted verbatim in movies, television, and other media, echoes of it ricochet through subsequent works. (Star Wars soundtrack, anyone?) The CSO proudly reminded patrons in the program book that this repertoire mainstay received its American premiere with the orchestra in 1920, to which the Chicago Tribune’s Ruth Miller correctly predicted that the piece would be “a most dependable and successful addition to the orchestra repertoire.”
Friday’s interpretation brought out the distinct personalities of each movement, showcasing the CSO’s strengths in the process. The orchestra’s hair-raising volume and sheer power made “Mars” even more terrifying than usual; on the other hand, “Jupiter” was played with a vitality that rendered it compelling, but never heavy. The CSO and Macelaru aptly captured the spirit of each planet as they continued their progression, from the nimble “Mercury” to the inexorably-building “Saturn” to the enigmatic “Uranus” and “Neptune.”
Stumbles were generally few and far between. “Venus” sounded oddly angular and heavy-handed for a “Bringer of Peace,” dulling its contrast with the brash “Mars.” Intonation was spotty in some places for wind soloists—possibly a side-effect of the humidity outside, which had burst into a relentless summer rain by concert’s end. Aside from some occasional moments of disconnect between Macelaru and the orchestra—some competing tempi here, a misgauged cutoff there—the young conductor led the orchestra ably throughout.
As for the audience? Unsurprisingly, they were saving their applause for Holst’s warhorse. At the end of “Neptune”—whose fade-out choral ending is arguably just as disorienting as Outscape’s—the audience shot to its feet. It just goes to show you: at the end of the day, there was something in this program for everyone. Bon appetit.