Dufour, Chicago Symphony triumph with premiere of Connesson concerto
Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts aren’t usually marketed with a thematic heading, but Thursday’s program was clearly designed to celebrate all things French. Swiss-born maestro Charles Dutoit is a tireless champion of the French canon, flutist Mathieu Dufour hails from Paris, and composer Guillaume Connesson’s musical heritage is as Gallic as a Left Bank bistro.
The headliner was the premiere of Connesson’s Pour sortie au jour, an ambitious, quasi-programmatic concerto for flute and and orchestra. You know you’re in for a sonic spectacle when you see a percussion section outfitted with a bass marimba and a wind machine, among at least a dozen other instruments with an equally far-flung lineage. Connesson’s day job is “Professor of Orchestration” at the Conservatoire National de Région d’Aubervilliers, a title signaling a degree of musical specialization unknown in American academia, and a reflection of the centuries-long French obsession with instrumental color.
Whatever the concerto’s considerable cumulative merits and occasional distractions, there is certainly never a dull moment in its 22-minute span. A lesser craftsman might allow the wealth of cultural references, formal intricacies, and sweeping color palette overwhelm the customary supremacy of the concerto soloist. But as is evident from his earlier efforts in the form, Connesson understands the pecking order inherent in the genre, and he is fortunate in Dufour to have a supremely gifted and committed advocate.
The composer deftly channels a comprehensive panoply of French orchestral colorists, or at least those before Messiaen and Boulez. Familiarity with the standard impressionist repertoire is almost a liability for a listener attempting to distill an individual stylistic profile. Pairs of woodwinds are employed in textbook Ravelian fashion, and subtly ambiguous harmonies and piquant snatches of melody often recall Faure and Debussy.
A century ago these composers were infatuated by the “exoticism” of Spain, East Asia, and American jazz, but in this piece Connesson evocatively conjures the sensuality of North Africa with a story line derived from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Inevitably the spirit of Scheherazade wafts through the score from time to time, an apt allusion since Rimsky-Korsakov quite literally wrote the book on orchestration.
With its detailed program, periodic stretches of rhythmic vigor, and invocations of dance, one could well imagine Pour sortie au jour repurposed as a ballet. The orchestral subsets (quartet of violas, pair of harps, batteries of percussion) suggest the specific dramatic situations mapped out in his detailed program notes, and fanciful set designs practically construct themselves.
Insofar as the sections and transitions are clearly delineated, and some gestures are recycled in the course of five linked movements, the composer maintains a clearly discernible formal cohesion. Further hearings are needed to determine if the wealth of detail overwhelms the big picture.
No such caveats need to be considered when assessing the debt of gratitude owed Dufour and Dutoit. Connesson is little known in North America, and such a high-profile premiere will surely be a considerable career boost.
A lesser soloist might have wilted under such technicolor frenzy, but Dufour’s expressive range and limitless technique served as a perfect counterweight to the orchestral behemoth at his rear flank. Dutoit clearly shares the soloist’s affection for the work, and, with rare exceptions, kept ensemble and flutist in reasonable balance. The soloist’s considerable local fan base responded with an enthusiasm rarely displayed at premiers.
Box office convention dictates that a new piece must be balanced with a marketable crowd-pleaser, a practice observed on this occasion by the most beloved French symphony in the repertoire, Saint-Säens’ Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”). Dutoit’s take was appropriately idiomatic, if not revelatory. This cautious approach didn’t dull the orchestra’s luminous and propulsive performance one bit, and organist Paul Jacobs reveled in the stentorian sonority of Orchestra Hall’s magnificent Moeller instrument.
Aside from its stirring opening Fanfare, there is not much of interest in Paul Dukas’ ballet La Péri. Even with the odd harmonic reference to his single “hit,” The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the poéme dansé rambled aimlessly, despite the best efforts of the determined Dutoit.