The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has had quite a week. To start, it gave four performances of a double-bill, Strauss’s Don Quixote with an exhilarating rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Nikolai Lugansky and conducted by famed guest conductor Charles Dutoit. Dutoit closed the week with a program highlighting French players and composers.
The performance began with Claude Debussy’s Images, an obscure work from the famous French composer. Debussy plays around with many musical forms; he quotes French folk songs in the third and final movement of the work and samples various Spanish dances throughout the Iberia movement. Dutoit paid close attention to the haunting melodies, letting them float above the colorful, rich texture conjured up by the orchestra. The performance was a moving portrait composed of myriad musical moods and whimsical flashbacks.
Dutoit deftly executed Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, a modern, five-movement cello concerto; he afforded the work clarity and brilliance, which was an especially neat feat considering the work’s difficult musical language. Though it certainly challenged an audience more accustomed to the warhorses of the classical canon, there are moments of atonal brilliance in the piece, all of which Dutoit treated with the care they required.
The most exceptional element of the performance, however, was the soloist, a French cellist by the name of Gautier Capuçon, whose remarkable focus and energy shone. Tout un monde lointain requires considerable virtuosity, but that did not seem to phase the talented Capuçon. The cellist’s impeccable technique and obvious passion brought forth all the embedded emotion from the opaque work.
One of Maurice Ravel’s pieces, La Valse, benefited from the inspired interpretation of Maestro Dutoit, who specializes in Late Romantic French music. Ravel, famous for his skillfully crafted orchestral textures, makes copious allusions to a central theme in the beginning of the work. But rather than rendering these repetitions dry, Dutoit’s creative conducting revealed multiple nuances in the melody.
La Valse’s close, considered musically episodic, could provide problems for a conductor trying to maintain melodic cohesion. But Dutoit did not indulge in the kind of over-emotion direction, which would have exacerbated this problem. The CSO’s consistently strong and fiery horns also contributed to the splendor of the piece’s ending. The audience responded enthusiastically almost immediately—La Valse earned Dutoit a standing ovation, and he bowed with a content expression on his face. After a backbreaking week of Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel, it was miraculous that he was still on his feet.