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January 21, 2003

No woman, no cry: CSO plays glowingly under Dutoit

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Charles Dutoit, guest conductor

Ravel, Mother Goose

Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Symphony Hall, January 18, 2003

If the subliminal messages of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" confirm that Paul McCartney is dead, so is pianist Martha Argerich. It should have come as no surprise to hear that Argerich would not perform in her weekend engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Last year, Argerich cancelled because of a supposed wrist injury. This year, as posters of apology in Symphony Center claimed, she became ill at the last minute. Suspicious yet? Of course, her celebrity status is kept alive by EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, which continue to sell amazing recordings of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff piano concertos with her name on them. But this figment of the concert audience's imagination never actually appears in public. But let the truth be out: the woman is piano history.

Whether she has entered that great concert hall in the sky or is temporarily under the weather, Argerich's absence this past weekend only gave the CSO's Saturday audience a chance to hear more orchestral music as it was meant to be heard. Under the baton of guest conductor Charles Dutoit, the orchestra began the evening with Ravel's complete Mother Goose ballet suite. He may have been expelled from conservatory for writing improper counterpoint, but Ravel knew exactly how to be effective with an orchestra. The suite, whose movements are musical sketches of fairy tales, paints charismatic musical pictures as the strings prattle with the flutes during "Conversations of Beauty and the Beast," and the harp arpeggiates the dance of the spinning wheel. The scheduled Prokofiev piano concerto could not have better opened the concert: even a mediocre performance of the ballet suite could rarely fail to entice.

This performance was the furthest imaginable from mediocrity. The concertmaster's solo passages in the second and fourth movements sang to the highest balcony, and the percussionists carried out the rhythmic motifs in "Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas" with character and precision. Dutoit's gestures at the podium--expansive circles with his arms, his whole body a seeming conduit for Ravel's own musical contours--were entirely for the ballet genre; the maestro was unabashedly involved physically and mentally with the music itself and the musicians creating it. What is more, the orchestra members were highly responsive, intense about every sforzando and gliss. Some dismiss Ravel as film score schmaltz--mood music--but with Dutoit and the orchestra taking both the score and each other seriously, the reward was a magical swirl of sound.

Berlioz, though not one as playful as Ravel, is also storyteller. His Symphonie Fantastique, therefore, made perfect sense after the intermission and as a followup for the Ravel. The imaginative titles of the symphony's five movements are quite Ravelian: "Dreams," "A Ball," "March to the Scaffold." Berlioz's scenes are phantasmagorical, morbid, and a bit disturbing--no Tom Thumb or the Empress of the Pagodas here. ("It must have been shocking in 1830," wrote the program annotator, never afraid to state the obvious.) But like the Mother Goose suite, the Symphonie Fantastique leans toward the caricatured. Using passage on passage of triple forte, calling for six percussionists, a full brass section, a slew of basses, and two harpists creates specific images in music. In the ballet suite, Ravel proved himself an able orchestrator. In this symphony, so does Berlioz.

Conducting from memory, Dutoit was even more passionate than he had been in the Ravel, and the orchestra matched his pathos. Both parties brought the requisite drama to the performance, and Berlioz's individual orchestral quirks--col legno sections that sounded like so many insects; syncopated rhythms in the cymbals; and, offstage, apocalyptic bells in the movement entitled "Dream of a Witches Sabbath"--came through with thoughtfulness as well as vigor. At the same time, the playing became more than a series of calculated sound effects. Like Ravel, only magnified, the onstage production became a mysterious, enchanting cloud of sound, a scene in which orchestra and conductor were suddenly inseparable.

Critics of CSO programming, myself included, have faulted recent concerts for arbitrary edginess. Why play Mendelssohn alongside composers of the early '90s (1990s, that is)? Why, except to be ornery, play Bach and Schoenberg both before intermission? Through a long and involved series of arguments, the ultimate reasons for these juxtapositions might end up persuasive. But Saturday's program needed no multi-step justification. We heard two sets of sketches, the first almost a jest, the second melodramatic to the point of parody. We had a chance to compare the 19th century with the early 20th. As well as being musically polished and emotionally satisfying, Saturday's menu was intellectually coherent.

So instead of mourning the loss of Martha Argerich, now of practically fictional status, every listener should have left Saturday realizing what purely orchestral writing can accomplish, what the fulfillment of good programming can bring, and what world-renowned ensembles can do when they set their hearts and minds on the music. When Dutoit was called back to the stage for the fourth time, he simply leaned on the bar of the podium and applauded the orchestra. "It's you," he seemed to say to the musicians. No encore could have put it better.