CSO goes for Baroque

“His comport behind the keyboard was… nimble, impassioned, and intuitive.”

There are those of the opinion that Baroque music is background-music fare, music whose quaintness sounds unassuming and, at times, predictable to the superficial (read: occupied) ear. A quick YouTube survey yields hours-long videos with Buzzfeed-worthy titles like “The Best of Bach” or, more unabashedly, “<3︎ 4 HOURS <3 Classical Music—Relaxing Bach Music for Studying Concentration and Sleep.”

If you’re a late-night frequenter of these Reader’s Digest playlists, I won’t pass judgment. But half-hearted listeners miss out because, in its own peculiar way, Baroque music is some of the most thrilling out there, especially in live performance. It has a gestural, physical aspect to it that is too often missed in recordings.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) took a breather from its usual Romantic-leaning repertoire to remind patrons of Baroque on Saturday night, the last performance in a three-concert program. Baroque specialist Harry Bicket led the orchestra in four well-selected works: Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Dance Suite from his comic opera Platée, Francis Poulenc’s Concert champêtre, Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement Four Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and the always-popular Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major by Bach.

With the exception of the Bach suite, very little of this music had been recently programmed by the CSO, and the 20th-century inclusions of both a harpsichord concerto with Baroque sensibilities (the Poulenc) and an orchestral arrangement of solo Bach keyboard pieces (the Stravinsky arrangement), alongside two Baroque suites, made for a program that was thematically unified but never redundant.

The Platée suite was an attention-grabbing opener. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh kicked off the piece before the opening applause had even ended by turning a crank on a primitive wind machine, not unlike what Rameau calls for in his opera: a large, scroll-like apparatus that creates a gusty roar when the wheel turns against its encasing fabric. It was a little corny, a little awkward, but when it came to contextualizing the first movement—which takes its title from the French word for thunderstorm—it did the trick.

Musical effects in the suite—cheeky glissandos, the entrance of a sparky little tambourine near the end—preserve the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the original opera. The final, unbroken dance movement, the Air Pantomime and Rigaudons, was a hearty jig that showcased all the extreme contrasts essential to Baroque music, and the CSO emphasized these especially well.

An essentiality that fell short, however, was the CSO’s sizing of a small ensemble to pull off Platée. Though the stage was indeed arranged for reduced forces, they were still too large in the strings, which would have benefitted from a reduction to about another two-thirds ratio to emphasize the clarity of the running lines.

The next piece, Poulenc’s Concert champêtre, was something of an homage to days past: The title is derived from fêtes champêtres—luxurious outdoor garden concerts—popular among French noblemen in Rameau’s day. However, Concert champêtre is no Baroque copycat; the always-idiosyncratic Poulenc is too good for that. There are whiffs of Stravinsky in the fractured percussiveness of the first movement, and Gershwin in the bluesiness of the second, but such comparisons are only approximations: In this concerto, Poulenc blazes a trail as enrapturing as it is original.

Remarkable, too, was the evening’s dapper soloist Mahan Esfahani, who stepped in for the ill Kristian Bezuidenhout, seemingly out of nowhere, to play Poulenc’s esoteric, quirky gem. Though he attended Stanford as an undergraduate, the Tehran-born Esfahani made his American orchestral debut with this concert program, and it was in every respect a successful one. His comportment behind the keyboard was unpretentious—his nimble, impassioned, and intuitive musicianship more than speaking for itself. The same went for his inspired encore, Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations from his Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, concluding a very French, and very satisfying, first half.

Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Four Preludes and Fugues was his last project, on which he worked doggedly despite his ailing health. The devotion shows: The preludes and fugues are tenderly arranged so that Bach’s music is enhanced, not effaced. The ensemble contracted to its smallest size yet, with the strings playing the preludes and the solo winds playing the fugues (This pattern is changed up for the B minor Prelude and Fugue, which is written exclusively for strings). This gave the members of the more intimate ensemble a chance to shine—most notably, principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, whose floating singing line enriched the F major Fugue—and showed us what could’ve been had the strings stripped down just a few stands more for Platée.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 obligatorily closed the program, a well-balanced and memorable delight from a very animated orchestra. It was enough to make one wonder: Hey, why don’t we do this more often?