March 12, 2004

Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Two out of three ain't bad

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Charles Dutoit conducting, presented a curiously polarized concert last Saturday, with brusque oppositions of extreme ennui and superb expressiveness. The program commenced with Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande suite Op.80 and ended with excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, both variations upon one of the most popular themes in the history of artistic expression—"a pair of star cross'd lovers." Fauré's suite was originally written as incidental to Maeterlinck's play of the same name and was later re-worked into a symphonic suite. Versions of Pelléas and Mélisande have been composed by Sibelius, Fauré and Schoenberg, but these tend to be more or less overshadowed by Debussy's operatic exposition of the legend.

In Fauré's case, I have no desire to argue against history's verdict. The work is expressive, but compared to Debussy's intense, excoriating, psychological treatment of the theme, Fauré pales into prettiness. But even with these inherent limitations, there's a lot to do with the work in terms of bringing out its darker, fiercer, more insightful aspects, and coaxing fervor from underneath its patina of beauty. This is where the CSO runs afoul. Dutoit took the easy way out, and did not care—dare?—to go the distance. He executed the piece very well, with a coat of perfection over everything, inviting the listener to coolly and clinically observe the fate of Mélisande while taking no part in her emotional odyssey. For instance, the rippling string accompaniment in the second movement, la fileuse, could have been played faster, more nervously. It could have used a latent edge of agitation, building up from a placid commencement to an undulating, hysterical climax, then relapsing into a quiet, desperate ending.

However, la fileuse was played with an almost maddening composure, and one was left wondering what all the fuss with Pelléas and Mélisande was about. The Sicilienne and the opening movement were largely unremarkable, though very well performed. La morte de Mélisande sounded more like an unremarkable death in Mélisande's old age than the ghostly, tormented, grief-stricken demise that it was. Granted, it would take some work to bring this out from Fauré's material, but it is by no means impossible. Exploiting the eldritch harmonies in the French horn parts would have been a start.

The banality of Mélisande's death was exacerbated by what seemed like antiphonal call-and-response coughs emanating from the audience. A measure developed by an enterprising concert-goer—informally known as the Unwanted Audience Noise Index—measures the amount of background noise made by an audience at a concert. This factors in the crescendo of throat-clearance that goes up between movements, the raucous coughs and the dropping of program notes during an especially intense pianissimo, the general stirrings and mumblings that occur during the concert, the irrepressible urge that assails someone to unwrap something in plastic during dolce cantabile, and so on. The measure arrives at a figure between one (the lowest) and ten (the highest), designating the amount of undesirable noise that an audience produces in a given concert. Using this measure, I would place the UANI of Saturday's concert at around seven.

The Prokofiev suite that ended the concert was a violent contrast to the insipid Fauré. The CSO offered eight pieces from Romeo and Juliet, The Montagues and the Capulets, a wonderful, sinisterly orchestrated morceau that brings out the promise of dreadful dissension to come. Among these was Juliet the Young Girl, a piece that brings out Juliet's delightful skittishness and poignant ingenuity. Also included were The Madrigal, Minuet and Masks, which create the atmosphere of the Capulet's ball and depict the stately entrance of the guests, as well as the furtive and playful entrance of the masked Romeo.

This is followed by Romeo and Juliet, which represents the famous scene of courtship in Juliet's chamber. It's one of the most excoriating, beautiful pieces in the history of ballet, and the CSO performed it gorgeously. The strings recovered from their colorless playing to deliver a ravishing, sensuous melody line with lithe, supple accompaniment. Dutoit raised them to heights of passionate fervor, creating a dark undercurrent of premonition and despair, ending with a trembling supplication that could wrack the soul of Destiny herself. But Destiny is inexorable—and "the fearful passage of their death-mark'd love" continues to its bitter end. Mercutio and Tybalt swagger onto the stage and eye each other belligerently. Tybalt kills Mercutio, only to be killed in turn.

Dutoit executed this thrillingly, with rare dash, brilliance, color, and violence. One could almost see the flashing rapiers and hear Tybalt's cry when Romeo strikes the final blow. The last movement represents the scene at Juliet's grave, when Romeo enters the tomb, finds Juliet dead, trembles with wrenching agony, then slays himself. Juliet's awakening was brilliantly done: the orchestra beautifully simulated her gasps of returning consciousness, in the same instant that Romeo loses his own. The power, passion and pain inherent in Prokofiev's darkly orchestrated score were palpably re-created, and one felt that Shakespeare's work truly lived again.

Petite Symphonie Concertante was the second piece and met the same fate as Pelléas and Mélisande. First, a word about the piece before we delve into the details of performance—it was composed by Frank Martin (1890-1974) in the '40s and is scored as a quasi-concerto for the eclectic combination of a harp, a harpsichord, and a piano, against a double string orchestra. It is presented in three movements—I'm tempted to adopt the nomenclature that Lewis Carroll used in his Hunting of the Snark and call it three fits—and is a witty, idiosyncratic caricature of a baroque concerto grosso. Its effervescent good humor and beautiful repartees, juxtaposed with passages of exquisite tenderness and poignancy, make it an utterly piquant work. The harpsichord, harp, and piano weave in and out of the textures created by the ripieno and create a deliciously unconventional concertino/basso continuo group. The harpsichord plays the role of the ancient, yet brilliant commentator with razor-sharp sarcasm and irony, overseeing the actions of the piano and harp.

The stately adagio introduction features the strings setting out the main melodic motifs in 3/4 time, followed by a mood change that takes a livelier 3/2 time. It segues into the allegro con moto, in which the harpsichord is featured over biting, pungent harmonies outlined by the piano. However, the sound of the harpsichord was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, "poore, nasty, brutish and short." In fact, that eloquent characterization may be applied to most of the Martin piece. Even with heavy amplification—or perhaps because of it—the harpsichord sounded characterless, brittle, and ill-tempered. It did not make itself indispensable in the textures, and it whined through most of the brilliant passagework. Part of the blame rests with the harpsichordist (Patricia Lee) for stodgy, unimaginative playing—but wherever the culpability lies, the net result was dreadful. This was nowhere clearer than at the beginning of the second movement, where the harpsichord "changes roles" with the harp to play arpeggial configurations, and later, when both the harp and the harpsichord accompany the piano. The solo piano (Mary Sauer) was probably the best soloist; she managed to infuse power and freshness into her part, compensating for the harpsichord and the very reticent harpist (Sarah Bullen). The third movement was a bit better in terms of overall playing. Dutoit and the orchestra roused themselves, but they still fell miserably flat with the wonderful jazz-influenced finale.

The extremely disparate nature of this concert makes it difficult to pronounce definitive judgment. The Prokofiev was transcendental, the Fauré was colourless, and the Martin was unremarkable. The concert seemed to be very oddly put together, as there were no links between the Fauré and the Prokofiev (the two works that were most thematically related). The Martin, though a beautiful work, was indifferently played and thus did nothing to foster a sense of continuity in the program. Much of this could have been remedied with better artistic interpretation, especially in terms of bringing out the parallelism between the Pelléas and Mélisande and Romeo and Juliet. Had Dutoit established a clear, overarching philosophical bridge between the opening and the culmination of the concert—and established a clear sense of contrast with the Martin piece, thus justifying its existence—the evening might have been brilliant.