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Concert Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (5/27/06)

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra
May 27, 2006 8:00pm
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Burkhard Fritz, tenor
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Rene Pape, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus

Boulez: Notations for Orchestra, I-IV + VII
Wagner: Parsifal, Act III

Sure, he's scolded Chicago hotels for playing Brahms in their elevators.

And yes, in an interview he once declared, "I can't stand going out to one more dinner with some Mrs. So-and-So who might leave a million dollars to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she dies. It's torture."

And of course, he committed the unforgivable (and highly publicized) sin of conducting Richard Wagner in Israel.

So maybe you think Daniel Barenboim is an aloof, arrogant bastard. Or maybe, like me, you admire his refreshing willingness to speak the "politically incorrect" truth now and then.

Either way, there's no question that he is one of the greatest musicians of our time, and filling his shoes after he leaves the Music Director post of the Chicago Symphony at the end of this season will be a daunting task. (In fact, it has been almost two years since he announced his departure and a successor has yet to be named…)

You also have to appreciate the fact that he is singing — or at least conducting and playing — for his last supper as he concludes his 15 year tour of duty here in Chicago, opting to go out not with a whimper, but a bang… actually several bangs.

In his final four weeks of concerts at Symphony Center, Mr. Barenboim will conduct complex orchestral warhorses like Mahler's Fifth, Beethoven's Eroica, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; thorny modernist symphonic works by Elliott Carter, Anton Webern, and outgoing (thankfully) CSO composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas; and the Ninth Symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, and Beethoven on three consecutive nights. He's also somehow finding the time to present two solo piano recitals performing the complete Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach (yes, both Book I and Book II) and conduct two Mozart piano concerti from the piano.

For starters, Barenboim's opening salvo of "farewell concerts" on May 25-27 featured a typically heady combo platter of two musical revolutionaries: Pierre Boulez and Richard Wagner.

Notations I-IV + VII are orchestral transcriptions, expansions, and reimaginings of some brief piano pieces Boulez wrote in 1945. (New versions of Notations V and VI have also been commissioned, but seem to be perpetually unfinished…) They are scored for a massive ensemble that occupied nearly every available inch on stage, including such indulgences as three harps and thirty-six percussion instruments. The orchestral score itself is even absurdly huge — appearing to be nearly as tall (and wide) as Mr. Barenboim.

At first, these pieces suggested a potentially appealing Technicolor spin on Webern's pointillistic atonality, but soon my interest waned and my patience evaporated. The only winner in the bunch, Notation II, was wisely saved for last — a pulsating, pounding, "strident" little chunk of serialist bombast that was fast, loud, and best of all, short. Otherwise, it seemed like Boulez was speaking to an audience comprised of only himself (and perhaps the one guy in the front row who gave a solo standing ovation when it was over.)

After intermission, a comparatively modest-sized Wagnerian orchestra had assembled onstage, somehow getting by with only a pair of harps and one tympani, to present a rare concert version of Parsifal Act III.

Listening to Wagner's final opera, in whole or in part, is like being in church in more ways than one. Therefore, I find that the best strategy is to ignore the crypto-Catholic text and simply allow yourself to become enveloped in the lush sonic soundscape. Unfortunately, supertitles with English translations of the libretto were projected above the stage at Orchestra Hall, making this a bit of a challenge at times.

Parsifal is a bit of an all-male vocal revue, especially in its final act. Burkhard Fritz was a likeable Parsifal, though his voice sometimes had trouble rising above the orchestra, and Rene Pape's deliciously resonant bass tone made for a strong Gurnemanz. Marquee idol baritone Thomas Hampson (and his hair) made the most of his brief appearance as Amfortas, hamming it up considerably with some tortured facial expressions.

Incidentally, after about an hour of Wagner had gone by, I noticed several members of the audience get up and leave early, giving Mr. Barenboim another reason not to miss Chicago too much, I'm sure.

Though they were hiding backstage during most of Parsifal, Act III, the Chicago Symphony Chorus was used for brilliant dramatic effect when the time came. At the climax of the opera, the men of the chorus slowly filed onstage (portraying the knights of the Holy Grail) accompanied by ominous tolling bells, creating an unforgettably startling, somber and awe-inspiring scene. And when the ethereal voices of the offstage female choir floated above Parsifal's final measures, it added an appropriately magical aura to some of the most gorgeous and sublime music ever written.

After the last notes were played, Mr. Barenboim kept his hand raised, savoring a long moment of pure silence after the nearly 90 minutes of continuous sound that had just ended. Nobody clapped, coughed, or moved. Then he lowered his hand, as thunderous applause and multiple curtain calls ensued.

We'll miss you, Daniel — really. Come back and see us now and then, okay? Sure, we've got annoying elevator music and high-maintenance millionaire widows here in Chi-town… but hey, we'll let you conduct Wagner whenever you want.

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