The CSO in Masterful Performances of Works by Four French Composers: Review

Jean-Yves Thibaudet in an encore performance of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante defunte” following Saint-Saëns’ “Fifth Piano Concerto (Egyptian)” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)Jean-Yves Thibaudet in an encore performance of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante defunte” following Saint-Saëns’ “Fifth Piano Concerto (Egyptian)” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Paris will be hosting the Olympic Games this summer, but if you are in search of what might easily be dubbed the Olympics of French classical music, you have no need to purchase an airline ticket. Simply head to Orchestra Hall this week for a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its program of works by four masterful French composers: Lili Boulanger, Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. As always, the CSO was in exceptional form, with the subtle but richly detailed French-born conductor Stéphane Denève on the podium and an absolutely breathtaking performance by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Magnifique!

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Opening the concert was “D’un matin de printemps” (“Of a Spring morning”), a brief but beautiful piece composed by Boulanger, the short-lived sister of her far more famous, long-lived sister, Nadia Boulanger (a conductor, composer and much feared teacher of a long list of composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass). Originally scoring the piece as a duet for violin and piano (and later for flute and piano), Lili Boulanger orchestrated her work in 1918, very shortly before her death at the age 24.

The five-minute piece begins with a dreamy opening for the strings and winds, and it then awakens in a state of excitement and moodiness as it builds in intensity with the addition of the brass and percussion sections, and a harp that adds a bit of both mystery and mischief to the work. A touch of playful lightness and poetry follows, with a lyrical riff from the strings. And then comes a big celebratory sound at the end. A gem.

Next comes Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major (Egyptian)” with a bravura performance by Thibaudet, whose fingers move faster than the speed of light and with absolute clarity. The concerto begins with a lyrical segment for the piano and plucked bass strings, followed by the singing violins playing a beautiful melody. The piano then launches into rapid-fire speed and a dramatic solo riff marked by Thibaudet’s phenomenal clarity and his ability to shift easily from absolute rippling fluidity to calm to high drama. The wind section does much the same in its own way.

Conductor Stéphane Denève, soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra acknowledge audience applause following a performance of Saint-Saëns’ “Fifth Piano Concerto (Egyptian).” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)Conductor Stéphane Denève, soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra acknowledge audience applause following a performance of Saint-Saëns’ “Fifth Piano Concerto (Egyptian).” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The work’s second movement begins with a big bang and tense opening and then turns moody, with Thibaudet shifting from the powerful to the lyrical with his meticulous yet fluid fingering at every turn, and the beautiful, hauntingly lovely sound of the strings. Then there is a sort of stress in the air with the shivering violins, a low piano riff and silence. Finally, Thibaudet jumps into the frenetic speed of the work’s third movement, with the strings and winds capturing an intense and exciting energy, and a lush melody for all.

The performance was met with fervent applause, and there were notably feverish “bravos” for Thibaudet, who returned for a lovely encore — Ravel’s widely known “Pavane pour une infante definite,” which set a quite different mood.

The second half of the concert featured two beautiful and more modern (early 20th century) works: Debussy’s wonderfully dramatic, mood-shifting “Ibéria (Images for Orchestra No. 2)” and Ravel’s wildly seductive and ever popular “Boléro.” The piece has a wonderfully hypnotic, continually repeating rhythmic theme that gradually builds with the voices of each section of the orchestra (with principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh tapping out the essential beat throughout). Over the course of its 16 minutes, this irresistible piece expands to the point of a powerful burst of sound that, in addition to everything else, serves as proof of the great power of repetition.

This concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Tuesday at Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For tickets, visit cso.org or phone 312-294-3000.

And one final note: Violinist Hilary Hahn has had to cancel her upcoming chamber music program at Orchestra Hall (scheduled for this Sunday at 3 p.m.) due to a respiratory illness. It will be rescheduled at some point to be determined.

Conductor Stéphane Denève leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ravel’s “Boléro.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)Conductor Stéphane Denève leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ravel’s “Boléro.” (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic


Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors