March 18, 2015

It takes a village: CSO's French festival hits on both the personal and the grand

There was a story floating around Symphony Hall Saturday night. As it goes, French-Canadian pianist and program soloist Louis Lortie had been rehearsing Vincent d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air with conductor Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra earlier in the week when Dutoit noticed that Lortie was playing the piece entirely from memory. The touch was professional, Dutoit noted, but not really necessary: The piece is rarely programmed—the CSO last performed it in the 1940s—nor would it figure prominently into the pianist’s post-concert repertoire. So, why had he memorized it?

Taken aback by the maestro’s intimation, an astonished Lortie responded as though the answer was obvious: “Well, the Chicago Symphony is not a village!”

Indeed it is not, which the orchestra demonstrated a thousandfold in a program that opened and closed with works composed by Maurice Ravel: concert go-tos Rapsodie espagnole and the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, respectively. Lortie was featured as the soloist in the concert’s middle portion, which included d’Indy’s aforementioned Symphony (which is not really a symphony at all, but more of a symphony-concerto hybrid) and César Franck’s Symphonic Variations (also a misnomer, and also spotlighting the solo piano).

Rapsodie espagnole is an example of “Spanish” music actually penned by a French composer, standing along standard repertory pieces like Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, and Debussy’s Ibéria, the last of which was performed by the CSO earlier this season. However, unlike the company Ravel joined in composing Rapsodie espagnole, most of whom only had a tenuous connection to Spain at best, Ravel actually had a direct tie to the country: His mother was Basque and grew up in Madrid, and he himself grew up near the Spanish border.

That being said, the Iberian touches in Rapsodie espagnole are more thematic than characteristic. The Malagueña and Habanera movements borrow rhythmic elements from traditional Spanish dance—and naturally, there are the obligatory, raucous castanets in the fourth-movement Feria—but on the whole, the piece is unmistakably a product of French Impressionism.

And how sumptuously the CSO breathed life into Ravel’s classic: Red-blooded and impossibly full, the CSO’s performance of Ravel had a distinctly different taste than the Rotterdam Philharmonic, who performed Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Piano Concerto in G at Symphony Hall last month. Generally put, for the Rotterdam Phil’s silvery and lithe Ravel interpretations, less was more; in the CSO’s case, more was more: more sound, more drama, more passion.

As for the underperformed Symphony on a French Mountain Air, something was left to be desired from both orchestra and soloist, especially at its beginning. Though there were memorable solo turns aplenty from individual members of the orchestra—a program all-star was Scott Hostetler, whose sublime English horn solos graced almost every piece on the program—on the whole it sounded stale, especially compared with the richness of the preceding Rapsodie espagnole. I recall feeling similarly underwhelmed when the CSO gave its first performance of a Pierre Boulez piece some months ago, and I can’t help but wonder if “Warhorse Syndrome” is accountable for the flat execution of these neglected pieces. All in all, the standard concert repertory is actually quite small; oft-performed pieces like Rapsodie espagnole gain a superhuman degree of Polish while others languish in obscurity, forgotten to musicians and audiences alike. It’s only a hypothesis—even a subdued CSO packs quite the punch, and it certainly warmed to the d’Indy by piece’s end—but Saturday’s concerts brought these sentiments back with a vengeance.

Nor did Lortie help the orchestra out much at all: In the first two movements, he sounded just as tense as he looked on the bench. Lortie’s nervous energy was finally put to good use in the jaunty third-movement Animé, whose main theme the soloist aptly described as an “earworm” in rehearsal.

He was certainly better suited to Franck’s Symphonic Variations than the d’Indy, but the same deficits marred both pieces. Often the CSO nobly attempted to compensate for his lack of lyricism, but Lortie never fully reciprocated. An example that’s fresh in my mind was acting principal violist Li-Kuo Chang’s gorgeously phrased solo in the second movement of the d’Indy, over which the solo piano plays a twinkling tremolo, during which Lortie blithely hammered away at the keys instead of sensitively adjusting to his partner. Conversely, in moments that begged for more virtuosic sparkle, Lortie never seemed to coax enough contrast with the orchestra to be heard.

Lortie’s playing was not without its merits, but for all his conviction that Chicago is “not a village,” his playing more often than not came off as disappointingly provincial.

If anything, a concert of so many ups and downs made the CSO’s closing performance of Daphnis et Chloé all the more rousing. Each swell inundated the hall; the sound generated by the CSO with each sweeping, languid gesture from Dutoit was absolutely astounding. Unsurprisingly, it was the ethereal, atmospheric strains of Ravel’s suite that swam in my ears as I left the concert hall.

No, the CSO is not a village. But for such a towering institution, it does have a way of drawing you into its intimate sphere, making you feel as though you, too, took part in something as personal as it is grand.