“The flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” Thus wrote Pierre Boulez about Debussy’s watershed Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, the beguiling opener to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s two week residency with the Chicago Symphony. Both of Salonen’s programs present a telescoped view of music history in the wake of Debussy’s seminal work, from the immediate aftermath in the ballets of Stravinsky, to the music of our own time in major scores of John Adams along with the conductor’s own freshly-minted Cello Concerto, to be given its world première next week with Yo-Yo Ma.

Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee
Leila Josefowicz
© Chris Lee
Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson was fully committed to the weight of the flute passage in question, sinuous and sensuous in its delivery. The pair of harps facilitated the music’s passionate swells, and additional solo contributions of note came from oboist Alex Klein and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh. Interestingly, this was the only work on the program Salonen elected to conduct without baton, which seemingly drew him closer into the orchestra, making much out of Debussy’s orchestration of utmost economy to yield an unbroken, magical haze of ecstasy.

Since its first performance at the New York Philharmonic almost exactly two years ago, John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 has traveled widely through concert halls around the world, finally reaching Chicago audiences Thursday evening. Clocking in at 48 minutes, it’s certainly no trifle and one of Adams’ most significant orchestral works in recent years. As the title suggests, it takes its cue from Rimsky-Korsakov’s durable suite, in an “updated” version that comes from the perspective of contemporary feminist, a response to the brutality towards women described in The Arabian Nights that inspired Rimsky-Korsakov’s original. Written for Leila Josefowicz, it features a daunting part for violin solo – much more substantial than that of Rimsky-Korsakov’s – representing a strong female character pitted against the orchestra.

In the opening “Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers”, one was immediately struck by the colorful instrumentation, written with a command of orchestral color to rival even that of its namesake’s. The horns were stretched to the upper bounds of their register, and a distinct Eastern flavor was achieved through liberal use of the cimbalom, positioned front and center and played by Chester Englander. The musical language was something of a departure from the minimalist pulsings of the pivotal Harmonielehre for instance, perhaps more cinematic (apt given its description as a “dramatic symphony” in a nod to Berlioz), but nonetheless comfortably congruent with Adams’ canon. Josefowicz’s athletic performance was breathless, yet this was more than mere virtuosity, but the work of an accomplished actor fully embodying her persona.

Beginning boisterously, “A Long Desire” soon gave way to an affectionate melody in the strings, bolstered by the tint of cimbalom and celesta. A further interesting if quite subtle effect was to be had in running a cello bow along the bars of the xylophone. In spite of all this, the focus remained on Josefowicz, the strength of her charisma overpowering the orchestra. “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” opened brashly with an impulsive rhythmic drive and built to a massive climax, an outburst of rapid fire playing, only to eventually end softly. The concluding “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” was marked by musical pointillism in the cellos, and some stark textures that brought to mind the final symphonies of Mahler. Josefowicz had the last word, her violin reaching high into the stratosphere.

While the Adams was refreshing in its civilized treatment of women’s equality, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was of a rather different ethic in dealing with the ritual sacrifice of a virgin.  Despite being famously iconoclastic, The Rite has become such a warhorse nowadays that the effect on audiences risks being numbed; Salonen nonetheless managed to bring forth a gripping performance of fresh intensity. One of the more recently appointed principals, Keith Buncke had the opportunity to shine in the spotlight during the impossibly high bassoon solo that opened. “The Augers of Spring” was given with a hypnotic rhythmic vigor of steely determination. Part II of the score began in desolate dissonance, building to the explosive and ferocious energy of the primal ritual, a spellbinding dynamism that was sustained through the final flourish in which the work quite literally ended with a bang.