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A Demonic Witches Brew

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
01/30/2010 -  
Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Marc-André Dalbavie: Flute Concerto
Béla Bartók: A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle)

Mathieu Dufour (Flute), Michelle DeYoung (Mezzo-soprano), Falk Struckmann (Bass-baritone)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (Conductor Emeritus)

P. Boulez (© Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

Seven weeks short of his 85th birthday, Pierre Boulez cooked up two soufflés and a witches brew last night. It was his second orchestra in a week (the Vienna Philharmonic was here last weekend), but in Chicago, he is not merely a conductor, he is “Conductor Emeritus”. That town, once Carl Sandburg’s “hog-butcher for the world”, relishes these ersatz-aristo titles, having dubbed Sir Georg Solti with the same moniker. Both conductors deserved the title, but both octogenarians approached the CSO differently.

Maestro Solti, a few years before his death, would sit and almost timidly gesture, yet the CSO played with dashing good spirits. A player told me that Solti had been with the CSO so long that he could telegraph every desire with the tiniest of motions.

Pierre Boulez would never let ephemera like chronological years dim his spirits. He works like a man on fire. In a work as familiar was Ravel’s “Homage to Couperin”, he didn’t let a single flute-trill or horn descant escape him. In fact, the accelerated pace for the opening “Prelude” was not done for the speed so much as showing how delicate, not prettified, these piano works can be when played by such an orchestra.

That was the first soufflé of the evening. The second was most unexpected. Marc-André Dalbavie’s compositions are known for complexity as well as finesse. His sources range from Italian paintings to American television shows (Dallas is a favorite!), and his teachers have included John Cage and conductor Pierre Boulez.

Whatever we expected, Mr. Dalbavie gave a surprise: a fantasia for flute. A single movement of Baroque proportions (fast/slow/fast sections), a play of lights and more lights, a few shades, back to a glittering light show again. From the beginning, flutist Mathieu Dufour tripped up and down the scales, barely pausing for breath. His silvery tones danced along with the stage lights of his instrument, sometimes in concert with the players, but never opposing them.

This was less a concerto than a synthesis of flute and orchestra, a work of ebullience and joy. One could imagine Jacques Ibert writing such a high-spirited work if he loved today, but Mr. Dalbavie explored more colors, divided up the prismatic hues, and gave an extra virtuosic challenge to Mr. Dufour. The soloist was made for the work. French himself, First Chair with the Chicago Symphony, and an artist who obviously revels in such a piece, he turned the Concerto into a brilliant jeu d’esprit.

Since it is still difficult to get the right blend for a staged performance of Bluebeard’s Castle–I saw one performance done with holographed blood, and a Budapest performance using the same soiled curtains they must have had in 1918 at its first performance–I was happy to have a concert performance here.

One benefit of the concert is that the extravagant, extraordinary orchestral feature, changing forces, colors and consorts for each of the seven “doors”, can’t be ruined by movements around the stage. And with Mr. Boulez at the helm, it had to be exciting.

Certainly the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave it all the frenzied color it needed. So good, in fact, that it emotionally (if not vocally) can drown out the words. Hungarian friends told me in Budapest that nobody could translate Béla Balázs’ words correctly. So when Judith keeps telling Bluebeard that she loves him, the steaming, frenzied strings offer far more than what words can tell. With the Fifth Door, when Bluebeard says “Now behold my spacious kingdom”, the shattering orchestral chords makes such words second rate, analogous to the famous Tony Curtis quote, “Yonder lies de kingdom of my fodder.”

This is not to put down the two singers at all. Since I was unable to learn much Magyar while living in Budapest, it wouldn’t be right to judge the pronunciation of Messrs DeYoung and Struckmann, but they sounded right. Michelle DeYoung, who recently was a worthy companion to Dawn Upshaw in El Niño, here played a most assertive Judith. When she begs for each of those keys, you know that Bluebeard is going to give in.

Musically, Ms. DeYoung used to bill herself as a soprano, and she has lost none of that powerful range. The most glorious orchestral moment is the aforesaid Fifth Door, the Kingdom. So when Ms. DeYoung blasted out with a high C as resonant as the blazoning trumpets, one had to look twice at her “mezzo” credentials.

Falk Struckmann was not an exciting Bluebeard, but the role is so doleful that we must rely on good steady singing, which he has. Bluebeard here was more fatalistic than tortured, but Mr. Struckmann’s strong steady voice never failed him.

Still, more than anything else, Bluebeard’s Castle, one of the most singular operas ever written, is an orchestral dream piece. The CSO balanced dream instrumentation with emotional nightmare for a spectacular spectral performance.

Harry Rolnick



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