In an estimable effort to add variety to its subscription series, the Chicago Symphony invited Alain Altinoglu to lead a program almost entirely dedicated to French religious music. The exception was the first piece of the evening: Prokofiev’s Orchestral Suite from The Love for Three Oranges. Premièred in Chicago in 1921 as L’Amour des trois oranges with a French libretto, Prokofiev’s youthful opera doesn’t have a truly significant connection with the French musical tradition.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Altinoglu imbued his version of the orchestral suite (which Prokofiev compiled for the concert hall) with the charm, elegance and delicate sensuality that we associate with French music since the days of Lully and Rameau. That was especially true for both the Scherzo and “The Prince and the Princess”, the latter segment drawn from the desert scene in the third act. The March had a Stravinskian roughness, going a little overboard in terms of decibels. A successful interpretation of Prokofiev’s excerpts doesn’t mean, though, that a performance devoted to rarely heard French religious music from the 19th and 20th centuries couldn’t have been prefaced with, say, an equally little known 17th-century religious gem by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Such a choice would have made for a truly special program and probably wouldn’t have brought in a lesser number of spectators.

Somehow similar to the paintings of Francis Picabia, Poulenc’s music is unmistakably 20th-century, but its Modernist credentials are buried in a cloud of eclectic traits and have to be carefully brought forward. That’s exactly what Altinoglu succeeded in doing in his remarkable version of Poulenc’s Gloria, a piece commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1961. He underlined the rapid changes in dynamics, the alternating dissonant and lush sonorities, the composer's sensitivity to uncommon harmonic combinations such as the dialogue between soprano and horn in Domine Deus. Altinoglu did not attempt to tone down the apparent irreverence characterizing the Laudamus Te music with its dance-hall rhythms. He beautifully suggested the ambiguity and doubt pervading the series of final, barely audible Amens. The orchestra and chorus responded well to all his demands. Sandrines Piau’s angelic soprano easily soared above the tutti line in Domine Deus, Agnus Dei.

The longest work of the evening was Gounod's Messe solennelle en l'honneur de Sainte-Cécile. Despite the conductor’s enthusiasm for this music and a well-balanced rendition, the interpreters could barely hide the conventionality of the writing, the piece’s true longueurs and bombastic sequences. The music is not devoid of qualities – like the skillful weaving of choral and orchestral lines, rousing unisons, interesting harmonic pairings such as the one between horn and harps in the second movement – but, overall, it's hard to say that this opus didn’t deserve to be almost forgotten. The still clarion-voiced Michael Schade brought brilliance to the Sanctus. Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Willaims acquitted himself well of his tasks in this work lacking individual arias. Returning after intermission, Sandrine Piau displayed an elegant, polished voice in the upper reaches of her span, but as in Poulenc, her singing in the lower register was less precise.

There is little doubt that, beyond individual contributions, what made this evening a memorable one was the performance of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, celebrating its 60th anniversary in the current season. Prepared by its long-term director, Duain Wolfe, a large ensemble, acting in perfect tandem with the orchestra, excelled in Gounod, from the quiet interventions in Et incarnatus est (Credo) to the very sonorous ones in Quoniam tu solus sanctus (Gloria).

Alain Altinoglu has lead several important American orchestras. Yet his name recognition here is not where it should be, considering his huge talent and his penchant for a non-standard repertoire which he enthusiastically tries to draw attention to.