CSO with Boulez's offstage hand: a perfect Schoenberg's 'Pierrot' and a wordy Stravinsky's 'Tale'
(A computer goblin kept blocking this post of my Sun-Times review of *last* week's Chicago Symphony Orchestra Schoenberg/Stravinsky concerts. Here 'tis.)
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Monday February 27, 2012
Soprano Kiera Duffy
Two chamber works get high-end frame
CSO stars, guests excel in 'Pierrot,' 'Tale'
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with Cristian Macelaru
soprano Kiera Duffy
and narrator John Lithgow
BY ANDREW PATNER
(The program was repeated Tuesday evening February 28.)
“Small is beautiful” and “If you build it they will come” could have been the mantras for the unusual and well-attended presentations this weekend by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In a CSO plan to bring together two early-20th century Modernist classics with conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez, himself a classic now, actors, a rising soprano, luxury rosters of CSO principals, and guest French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard were scheduled for four performances of Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot lunaire (two of them as a part of the ever-searching “Beyond the Score” series), and two of Stravinsky’s 1918 The Soldier’s Tale. Eye problems caused Boulez to withdraw from conducting duties (for this coming week’s Mahler concerts as well) but good fortune allowed him to come to town for intensive coaching and supervision, especially with American soprano Kiera Duffy who took the narrative role in Pierrot.
Both of these are works usually at home in settings befitting their chamber size -- Pierrot has five instrumentalists and Soldier’s seven -- but the opportunity for a large audience to hear one rarity at all and two works where such top players were giving enviable focus was thrilling Saturday night at Orchestra Hall.
Schoenberg’s “3 x 7” settings of poems on a moonstruck commedia dell’arte Pierrot by the Belgian French-language Albert Giraud (using the German translation of Otto Erich Hartleben) are central to both the composer’s lifelong explorations of tonality and meaning and to the modern artistic age he helped usher in. Chicago has been fortunate to have had the locally-based sextet eighth blackbird take on Pierrot in two different and excellent conceptions. But the chance to hear how Boulez envisions the 35-minute work musically and especially how he shaped the Sprechstimme (“speaking voice”) of soprano Kiera Duffy made this a not-to-be missed evening and collapsed the hall into a mentally and emotionally intimate space.
CSO stalwarts Mathieu Dufour, flute and piccolo; J. Lawrie Bloom, clarinet and bass clarinet; Robert Chen, violin and viola; and John Sharp, 'cello, along with Aimard were a dream team with emphasis on both parts of that term. Stand-in young Romanian-born conductor Cristian Macelaru, following Boulez’s markings and attentive and supportive to Duffy at stage left, kept things properly hovering in the moonscape and made himself appropriately invisible.
In contrast to Pierrot, there never seems to be a shortage of Soldier’s Tales. This one benefited from another crack musical team, concertmaster Chen in the key role in the story of a fiddle (read "soul") sold to the devil, was joined here by fellow CSO stars Steven Williamson, clarinet; David McGill, bassoon; Christopher Martin, trumpet; Michael Mulcahy, trombone; Michael Hovnanian, bass, and Cynthia Yeh, percussion.
British director Annabel Arden, a close associate of “Beyond the Score” creative director Gerard McBurney, assembled a fairly script-heavy version of the flexible work, running a full hour. Guest narrator John Lithgow was ever appropriate, local veteran Kevin Gudahl was a super and sly Devil, newcomer Adam Van Wagoner a boyish and poignant Soldier. But despite fine work by Demetrios Troy as another side of the Soldier and dancer Lindsay Marks as the Princess, the split character was unnecessary and the staging had grown exhausting by the time we came to the damsel-in-distress plot angle.
The spiky, genre spanning -- what today would be called “remix” -- of Stravinsky’s spare score will always trump an extended theatrical take on this pocket version of the Faust tale. Both works were atmospherically lit by Peter Mumford, another British import.