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Stravinsky, Elliott Carter and Varèse: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 10.3.2009 (BH)

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements (1942-1945)
Stravinsky: Four Studies for Orchestra (1914-1917; orch. 1928)
Elliott Carter: Réflexions (2008; New York Premiere)
Varèse: Ionisation (1929-1931)
Varèse: Amériques (1918-1921; rev. 1922)

In last November's list of the world's top ten orchestras, Gramophone tagged the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at number five, but in this second of two concerts at Carnegie Hall with Pierre Boulez, they sounded as if they should be in the number one slot.  One characteristic that distinguishes great ensembles from the "merely" very good is the ability to tackle unfamiliar scores with such assurance that listeners forget that they don't hear them every week.
  To hear these five pieces played with this kind of panache would surely convince even the most skeptical of the richness in 20th-century repertoire (not to mention the 21st).

In Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, the orchestra made a whopping opening, creating an immense soundstage, and ultimately delivering a crisp, formal-yet-not-stuffy performance.  The end of the first movement drew scattered applause—appreciation I was tempted to join.  Then came Stravinsky's rarely heard Four Studies for Orchestra, sounding as if they should be programmed as frequently as the Brahms symphonies.  To create the set, Stravinsky took the first three, originally written for string quartet, and added a fourth (an impression of Madrid, written for piano roll), then orchestrated them all.  These little gems range from the nervous march of "Dance," the despondent hiccups of "Eccentric," to the slow, hazy "Canticle" that echoes the opening of the second part of Le Sacre du printemps.

"Pierre" is the French word for stone.  In
Réflexions, written for Boulez's 80th birthday, Elliott Carter uses one struck by glockenspiel mallets—by any measure, an arresting timbre.  With a small ensemble—the piece was originally conceived for the Ensemble Intercontemporain—Carter finds lightness and humor as the textures tumble over each other.  A substantial bassoon passage near the beginning is borderline funny: while it explores its lowest registers, the remainder of the ensemble seems to intervene, as if encouraging the poor bassoon to rouse itself from some unexplained torpor.  Later the rocks reappear, adding flurries of clicks as the orchestra seems to be chasing itself in a constantly evolving series of glittering moments.  And once again, for the umpteenth time this season, the composer was present and rose to receive a warm ovation from the crowd.  At 100 years old, Carter seems to go out more than people a quarter of his age.

For my listening companion, the breathtaking reading of Edgard Varèse's Ionisation was the highlight of the entire evening.  Using a squadron of 14 percussionists, Boulez led what at times seemed like a 20th-century rumba.  In eight minutes, Varèse strings together an astonishing array of timbres that cling together tightly, then release themselves just as easily.  The clarity Boulez lent this score was fairly astonishing.  Then immediately afterward, the remainder of the (very, very large) orchestra, having waited patiently while the percussionists had their field day, began the quiet opening of Amériques.  The mysterious opening, with flute and harps throbbing in some sacrificial ritual, gives no hint of the cataclysmic sonic blasts that happen later.  As Phillip Huscher writes in his notes, it is a "love song for a wondrous and stimulating new urban environment and a glorious shout of liberation."  (Emphasis on the word, "shout.")

Bruce Hodges

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