Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Janáček and Schoenberg, too

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the December 5th, 2010

We went to Symphony Center last night to see Pierre Boulez conduct an exhilarating program with the Chicago Symphony. It was the kind of performance that leaves you with goosebumps, even the morning after.

The evening opened with the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s 1899 composition, “Transfigured Night.” I know this primarily in its original format, as a piece for a string sextet. With five or six times that many strings thrown into the mix the piece not surprisingly feels fuller. In particular, the brief dissonant section in the second movement (I think it’s the second movement, anyhow) hit with greater force, setting a sharper contrast with the lush Brahms-like lyricism that characterizes the rest of the piece. It’s a lovely work, and the orchestra played with great precision and beauty.

After the intermission came the Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a stirring epic that should be much better known than it is. A barbaric yawp that sounds more like fire and brimstone than anything you’d expect to hear in church (especially on the maniacal pipe organ solo that comprises the penultimate movement, played last night with appropriately over-the-top intensity by Paul Jacobs), it employs a full choir, pipe organ, four vocal soloists, and an enormous orchestra. You have the feeling, in other words, the you’re getting your money’s worth when you see this one performed live.

Boulez led the massed musicians at a brisk pace, and everyone performed brilliantly. Seeing it played live, I came to realize how the work is largely structured around a dialogue between the chorus and the brass section: they pick up each other’s lines, interrupt one another, echo each other’s chord patterns.

There was a small bit of drama in last night’s performance. I happened to be watching vocal soloist Mikhail Petrenko sitting in his chair, obviously getting mentally prepared to stand up and take his first solo. Suddenly, his foot slid back under his seat and knocked over the glass of water that was sitting there. He quickly reached down to set it back upright. I kept wondering if they would bring him a new glass between movements, but they didn’t. I also wondered if tenor Lance Ryan might slide his glass of water over to the other side of his chair to share with his bass partner, but that didn’t happen either. The other three vocalists kept sipped elegantly at their glasses of water to moisten their throats between their singing parts, but poor Petrenko had to go without. At any rate, he got through the rest of the performance without incident and sounded fine.

Boulez carries himself on stage with reserve, employing body language that I can only describe as charming. It’s hard to believe you are watching one of the legendary firebrands of modern classical music when you see him conduct. Perhaps he’s mellowed at age 85.

At any rate, a night at the symphony to remember. Both Andrew Patner (Sun-Times) and John von Rhein (Tribune) gave enthusiastic reviews to the program, as well.

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