Chicago Symphony/Boulez in New York – 2 [Stravinsky, Carter & Varèse]

Symphony in Three Movements
Four Studies for Orchestra [1928 version]
Réflexions [New York premiere]

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 March, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

There were an unusually large number of empty seats for this Chicago Symphony concert, but also a refreshingly high ratio of younger faces among an audience clearly receptive to music that is central to Pierre Boulez’s repertoire.

Pierre BoulezWhatever Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements may lack in memorable tunes it more than compensates in rhythmic impetus, contrapuntal intricacy and colorful orchestration. The work, written during the height of World War II, contains many allusions to martial music along with an array of sections drawing on earlier musical forms (including a full-blown fugue in the finale). The orchestra played the work with unflagging energy and, in the central Andante, a tightrope-walking balance of tension and slow momentum. The Symphony contrasted quite well with the second work on the program, Stravinsky’s Four Studies, a work Boulez has championed for well over four decades. The Studies, written a few years after The Rite of Spring, inhabit a fluid aesthetic space somewhere between pre-Petrushka and The Rite, and Boulez and the CSO brought out Stravinsky’s early ‘Russian’ sound (which draws strongly on Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral style) – with the occasional frisson of Parisian color.

Elliott Carter, now well into his 101st-year, composed Réflexions in honor of Boulez’s 80th-birthday, basing the work’s melodic and motivic content on pitches that are equivalent to Boulez’s last name. Réflexions is scored for a large woodwind section, six brasses, small string section (about 40 players altogether), piano, harp and a huge array of percussion. There’s plenty of the energetic exuberance that has characterized Carter’s recent output, an abundance of concertante solos (particularly a quasi-song-and-response sequence in the work’s first half that pits the contrabass clarinet in contrast to the rest of the ensemble), richly textured blocks of sound (including some colorful percussion) framing fast-moving flourishes, and woodwind trills that are more than a little reminiscent of sonorities from Boulez’s recent compositions. This was the work’s New York premiere; Carter was present to receive a long and rousing ovation.

Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation opened the second half of the concert. This all-percussion tour de force carried not only the impact one would expect but, in the reverberant acoustic of Carnegie Hall, a surprising spectrum of sonorities and colors from individual and massed instruments.

Amériques, scored for large orchestra and augmented percussion section, inspired, as the composer has written, by sounds he encountered when he moved to New York City in the late 1910s. Although Varèse was aligned with the French avant-garde of the time, it is also worth noting that his American debut as a performing artist, in 1917, was as conductor of Berlioz’s Requiem – and Boulez seemed not only to hone in on the work’s grand, Berliozian gestures but also drawing the disparate sections of the work together in remarkable cohesion, bringing out phenomenal detail in the most thickly-scored sections, and imparting solid rhythmic impetus to the work without sacrificing subtlety or color.

The final sequence of crescendoing, crashing chords were delivered with the sort of intensity and sheer volume I have rarely heard from the Chicago Symphony since the departure of Georg Solti as music director nearly two decades ago. The audience answered that final ‘wall of sound’ with a prolonged, enthusiastic ovation.

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