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Debussy, Ravel, and Ligeti: Robert Chen (violin), Pierre Boulez (conductor), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Center, Chicago, 26.11.2010 (JLZ)


Claude Debussy: Symphonic Fragments from The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

György Ligeti: Violin Concerto (revised version)

Maurice Ravel: Mother Goose Suite

Claude Debussy: La Mer


Friday evening’s concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez, was exceptional both for the exquisite rendering of the familiar, and the persuasive execution of the unfamiliar. The program opened with the set of four Symphonic Fragments from The Martrydom of St. Sebastian, a suite of movements from the incidental music Claude Debussy composed for a production of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine. While some conductors treat this music as mere atmosphere, Boulez’s vivid reading brought out the details of Debussy’s careful orchestration, with the CSO’s finesse making his timbres and textures readily apparent.


Yet the performance of Ligeti’s complex Violin Concerto (a CSO premiere in its revised, five-movement version), with Robert Chen on solo violin, was extraordinary for the intensity of the musical involvement, the precision, and the sense of immediacy conveyed. As much as the audience appreciates the finesse that the CSO contributes to familiar scores, that quality is all the more impressive in unfamiliar efforts like this. Written in 1992 and meticulously structured in arch form, the concerto makes use of various musical styles and non-traditional instruments, like the ocarinas played by some of the woodwinds, as well as an extended percussion section. Chen gave an intense and impassioned performance in a work that is virtuosically demanding, and the result was a powerful experience.


In the second half Boulez gave a masterful interpretation of Ravel’s familiar Mother Goose Suite. His sense of balance and tone color gave shape to the music from the start. In fact, Boulez’s interpretation of the third movement, “Empress of the Pagodas,” made audible distinctions between the traditional Western structure and the passages of Orientalism, when Ravel chooses specific sounds associated with the East (without resorting to cliché or caricature). The final movement, “The Enchanted Garden,” brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion, with the rich scoring building to the climax.


Boulez concluded with an equally impressive performance of Debussy’s La Mer, an interpretation distinguished by its focus and integration. The strings were particularly cohesive, not only through bowings and articulations, but with a consistent color that brought out the composer’s details. The cellos were notable, especially in the seating pattern used this evening: the first and second violins were across from each other on the stage, rather than adjacent to each other as is customary in Symphony Center. Likewise, the woodwinds brought a polish and precision that is evident in the notation, but not always audible to the listener. Yet the core of this interpretation is Boulez, whose sense of structure in Debussy is authoritative; the three movements were distinct—yet in Boulez’s vision, well-integrated.


The audience responded enthusiastically—including to Ligeti’s powerful concerto—and it is worth noting that, at the very beginning of the concert, the CSO stood to greet Boulez upon his entrance. Such overt public gestures, not to mention the quality of playing in every movement, attested to the responsiveness and versatility of the Chicago ensemble.


James L. Zychowicz


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