The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “French Reveries and Passions” festival is winding down, and not letting up on energy. Dynamic performances of pieces by Debussy and Ravel opened Thursday’s program, and Messiaen’s mammoth Turangalîla-Symphonie brought the night to an exhilarating close.

Samuel Coles began the program with Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute, in an imaginative start to a symphony orchestra concert. The lights were dimmed to their limit with a single spotlight on Coles, putting all the attention on the player. The threads of music that comprise this minutes-long work recall the famous opening of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and Coles rendered a particularly colorful tapestry, especially in the huskier registers of his instrument.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Following this vignette came French music of a different ilk when Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the CSO with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. This is a an upbeat, jazzy concerto, initially conceived as a divertissement (and written after Ravel's tour of America which included meeting Gershwin and some nights spent in jazz clubs). Salonen conducted crisply right from the opening whip-crack, with the CSO sounding watertight throughout the gnarly score. Thibaudet handled the showy elements of the concerto deftly, but it was the more introspective moments that left the greatest impression. The section in the first movement with undulating arpeggios and trills was something special, and the second movement was like a blissful daydream, timeless and whimsical. Scott Hostetler provided sensitive accompaniment on the English horn in this Satie-esque movement. The concerto concludes with a rather sassy finale, played with elfish dexterity by Thibaudet. The dizzyingly fleet tempo was handled well by the CSO, and particular commendation goes out to Keith Buncke’s burbling bassoon noodling and John Bruce Yeh’s virtuosic Eb-clarinet licks. Perhaps it’s cliché to say a Frenchman can play French music best, yet Thibaudet had an undeniably eloquent and endearing turn of phrase throughout this concerto.

In stark contrast to the lonely fashion in which the concert began, the stage was filled to the brim with players for Messian’s behemoth, Turangalîla-Symphonie. In addition to featuring solo piano and ondes Martenot (an electronic instrument with a sound similar to a theremin), this work calls for a vastly expanded orchestra, particularly in the brass and percussion sections. Thibaudet returned to play the solo piano part while the ondes Martenot was performed (from memory!) by specialist Valérie Hartmann-Claverie. The name of this work is derived from Sanskrit words for “time” and “play,” and other derivations include a melting pot of diverse ideas, such as Balinese gamelan music, ancient Indian rhythms, and (in abstraction) Catholicism. Important themes include, broadly, creation, destruction, and love. Musical cyclic themes are also present and help fuse this work’s massive ten movements.

With a veritable army on stage, Salonen and the musicians had essentially the whole spectrum of timbres and dynamic to play with, and the score often calls for the loud end of both variables. After hearing the reduced orchestra used for the Ravel, it was shocking to hear the rumble of a full string section and then the other instruments playing the menacing Introduction movement. This symphony features many piano cadenzas, in which Thibaudet displayed real brawn, creating sonorities so dense as to be an adequate replacement, temporarily, for the orchestra. Punctuating through the heavy texture later in the movement was a hypnotizing clockwork rhythm from the percussion section, headlined by maracas, woodblocks, and glockenspiel. Not every movement was quite as bombastic as the introduction; movements 2, 4, 6, and 8 are the “love” movements and are often more intimate. In many of these, Hartmann-Claverie played an important role with her ondes Martenot lines, often in tandem with the string section. When played with the strings the ondes Martenot added a compelling touch of otherworldliness, a color that became positively alien when heard more on its own. This usually occurred when the onde martenot part called for gooey glissandos up and down, sounding psychedelic.

The most gripping moments in this performance occurred in the brassy movements, particularly the fifth and final. Both of these have an Aaron Copland feel to them. The fifth has a “giddy-up” kind of swing to it, and the last movement also has a bright character. The CSO brass created a visceral experience for the audience with tones so resonant that the after ring  was practically tangible. Salonen created a memorable conclusion to both movements. At the end of the fifth he simply expanded his arms gradually, and the orchestra swelled right along with him, creating an electrifying wall of sound. For the last movement, Salonen brought the music to its close with an inexorable slowing of the tempo, conducting as if the air had turned viscous. A great sense of anticipation was created before yielding to eventual relief when the final note arrived. The high concepts and generous length of this work do not make for easy listening, but the sheer energy of having such a number and array of instruments on stage made up for this. A shower of applause for Salonen and the CSO verified that the “French Reveries and Passions” continued to be a success.

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