Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Friday February 24, 2012 8:40PM CST
Guest conductor Alain Altinoglu led the CSO in a French bill Thursday night.
Chicago Symphony programs this week send out mixed signals
Schoenberg's 'Pierrot' gets careful examination; French Nazi advocate and collaborator gets a pass
BY ANDREW PATNER
"Beyond the Score" Pierot lunaire repeat Sunday art 3 p.m. is
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Pierrot lunaire and The Soldier’s Tale.
Tickets, $19-$209, (312) 294-3000, cso.org.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra follows its post-West Coast tour successes with three different but interwoven programs that started Thursday night and run through Tuesday at Orchestra Hall. Even with a scorecard, it’s difficult to separate them, since they are so intermingled in terms of schedule and content, with scheduled and last-minute débuts by conductors with origins from Central European and Eastern countries (the former replacing Pierre Boulez, who had to withdraw from some of these dates).
Friday afternoon gave us the first outing of a masterful “Beyond the Score” examination/demonstration/performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 chamber masterwork Pierrot lunaire. In it, Gerard McBurney, founding creative director of the series -- this time absenting himself from the narrator's role -- lays out historical, personal, musicological, and sociopolitical context for almost every aspect of this ever-haunting combination of German and French cabaret, Sprechstimme (spoken voice), and explorations away from traditional tonality.
Running throughout the story of the 13 years of Schoenberg’s life from Transfigured Night in 1899 to Pierrot in 1912 are the constant strains and stains of anti-Semitism that the Jewish composer encountered in his native Vienna and his twice-adopted Berlin, repeating experiences faced by his mentor and idol Gustav Mahler. Mahler died at 50 in 1911. With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Schoenberg, who lived until 1951, was forced to flee Europe with his family.
Surrounding the Pierrot performance Friday afternoon were the first CSO performances Thursday and Friday night in almost 70 years of The Tragedy of Salomé by Florent Schmitt (right, 1870-1958), a composer infamous for one of the most overt displays of Jew hatred outside Nazi Germany. On Nov. 26, 1933, at a concert of music by the German-Jewish émigré Kurt Weill with the Orchestre de Paris at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Schmitt rose during one of Weill’s songs from Der Silbersee and shouted “Vive Hitler!” He then called to end performances by German refugees and Jewish riffraff, launching a long collaboration with pro-Nazi groups and later the occupying Nazis themselves. Weill and the evening's conductor Greek-Swiss-Jewish Maurice Abravanel soon each left Paris and within a couple of years had found safe haven in the United States.
But in the CSO program, you won’t see a word about any of this. There is much discussion of the complicated relationship between Schmitt and Igor Stravinsky, and much speculation on what extent the rhythmically novel last section ("The Dance of Terror") of the 1907-1910 often bombastic and often derivative work -- a 30-minute reduction of an hourlong ballet score (which Schmitt devised for Hinsdale-area native, modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller) -- might have influenced Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, premièred two years later, in 1913.
The Schmitt closed out an all-French program beautifully realized by French-Armenian conductor Alain Altinoglu, who led a fine Carmen at Lyric Opera last season (and here, he led two casts in two engagements!). Intelligent and capable of smoothing out many a complex passage in the Schmitt, Bizet’s own 1855 Symphony in C, and Emmanuel Chabrier’s greatest hit, España, Altinoglu had the CSO with him all the way. Principal oboe Eugene Izotov contributed splendid solos.
Filling in for Boulez, Romanian-born Cristian Macelaru led an all-star Pierrot ensemble and actors for the “Beyond the Score” production. More on that after it is heard in concert Saturday night with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. But first with Orff’s Carmina Burana last month and now with Schmitt, the CSO is sending out strange signals: audiences should be brought beyond and behind the score, except when they’re not.