It’s hard to believe that almost a century has gone by since the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Generations of children have grown up watching Fantasia, and the music has long since been established as a staple of concert programs. Nevertheless, a standout performance has the potential to bring the house down, as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did with David Robertson this past weekend.
The program started off with Olivier Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings). Typical of Messiaen, there was an element of mysticism at the opening, as the strings wound their way on a circuitous path over sustained notes in the solo winds. As the piece built in energy, Robertson led the orchestra with razor-sharp conducting through an assortment of constantly shifting time signatures. A craggy atonal unison line that closed the piece occasionally caught a few of the violinists slightly off guard, but generally showcased the unified phrasing and intonation that distinguishes the CSO string section.
Kyoko Takezawa joined the CSO for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, a potential minefield of atonal passages, serialism, and expressionistic music for both the soloist and the orchestra. Takezawa made it abundantly clear that it’s also an incredibly lyrical piece that provides ample opportunity for the soloist to soar. Her playing was appropriately reserved, but she and Robertson did step up tp the plate to convey enthusiasm when warranted. Aside from some blending and intonation issues in the clarinet quartet’s quotation of a Bach chorale late in the second movement, the CSO was clear and articulate, bringing forth the many shifting tone colors that constantly bubble to the surface in this piece.
Robertson’s exacting precision was an invaluable asset in The Rite of Spring, a piece which threatens to throw all but the most attentive of ensembles off the precipice into a canyon of rhythmic inaccuracy. Plaintive at the beginning with its high-register bassoon solo, savage at its other extreme, the CSO nailed the score to the wall. Indeed, this is the bread and butter of the Chicago Symphony-- a technically challenging work with ample opportunities for individual soloists to shine and ensemble passages that particularly showcase the brass and winds. Standout soloists and sections are too numerous to name, but principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh drew an almost unbelievable amount of sound from the bass drum, and the octet of horn players, at times with their bells up in the air, did their part to bring a blazing ferocity to Stravinsky’s score.