CARNEGIE HALL | Of Firebirds and Nests

Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BOULEZ | Livre pour cordes
BARTÓK | Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, pianos)
STRAVINSKY | The Firebird (complete)

A privilege to hear Boulez conduct, last night for the third time in just two weeks. His friend and protégé Pierre-Laurent Aimard was present, too—my first time seeing him after years of being transfixed by his Ligeti recordings. What a stunning showcasing of the Chicago Symphony’s stunning abilities these concerts have been.

The concluding work left the deepest impression. Firebird: from supple translucence to explosive expanse. By the end the whole hall felt bursting and ablaze. On the way out afterward I ran into a lady so dazed she seemed ready to stumble. “Was that not wonderful!” she breathed. “Yes, it was amazing.” “I was crying all the way through.” “Oh! I wasn’t crying but I was sweating,” I confessed, verbs barbaric, “It knocked me out.” “Yes,” she nodded, as glad as I to blurt it out, “it completely knocked me out!” After exchanging more marvel over ageless Boulez we parted with good-night wishes and a shared thrownness.

Boulez’s own Livre pour cordes (1948-88) began with sparse stirrings that delicately explored without out-stretching astray. Bobbins of exceptionally fine, distinct threads of sound patiently spun out into fuzzy, woolen, cloud-like forms—something cotton-candy-like. Out of pleasant arrhythmias emerged sudden, decisive clusters of energy, as directional gesture or frenzy of pizzicato—utterly convincing yet somehow untraceable. Particular beauty took the form of slippery efflorescences, blooming between exacter events. The CSO strings were superbly suited to the intricate textures of this music.

Full of creative vigor, Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940) is less concerto than a showcase for percussion and the piano’s own percussive machinations. (That the pianists were therefore less soloists than features of the orchestra meant one couldn’t quite hear Aimard in a starring role—but let there be other opportunities.) Like so much of ceaselessly surprising Bartók, its sound-world remains to this day strange and marvelous to behold. Beginning with tight, rumbling note-clusters in the pianos that gradually expand in amplitude, the lengthy first movement shifts almost imperceptibly (because through many captivating events) from the chthonic to the celestial. The second movement opens with a simple, expectant, almost Baroque dance rhythm, then quietens into an elemental space of stippling keys, breeze-like airs sweeping through, things turning in the light. In the third movement we sense a return to the spaces of human activity—rhythms of work, of dance, of pageantry—and concludes with those sounds passing into the distance, but to keep on as they are, not to die away. The two percussionists here—Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos–were the real stars.

In the row behind me a young couple cuddled in a nest they’d made with their coats and woolens and flowing hair and sat whispering in French for much of the concert, seemingly oblivious to the extraordinary proceedings on stage, save perhaps as dramatic scenery for their ardor. One smiles upon them and vaguely worries about them—these young pairs for whom little is more interesting out there in the world than the burning circuit of their own vitality.

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