Guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in three weeks of programs that focus on symphonic and operatic repertoire by Ravel, Debussy and Messiaen, as part of the French Reveries & Passions festival, which begins May 3. In addition to three CSO programs, the three-week festival also includes recitals by two young French pianists, an evening of jazz by French artists, chamber music performed by CSO musicians and the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma, a performance by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and a public discussion between the CSO’s Creative Director of Beyond The Score® Gerard McBurney and the Art Institute of Chicago’s David and Mary Winton Green curator and Impressionist expert Gloria Groom.
As curator and guest conductor of the CSO programs, Esa-Pekka Salonen has selected works from the 20th-century repertoire that evoke both the sensuality and emotion of Impressionism and the repertoire’s trailblazing modernism, which are drawn together by themes of beauty, fantasy and the darkness of the night.
On May 7, 8, 9 and 15, at 8 p.m., Salonen leads the CSO in a program inspired by youth and childhood, beginning with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, followed by Debussy’s La damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damsel). Ravel’s one-act fantasy opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, closes this program. Soprano Chloé Briot is featured in the title role of the Child in her CSO debut. Sopranos Marie-Eve Munger and Kate Royal, mezzo-soprano Marianna Crebassa, contralto Elodie Méchain, and tenor Manuel Núñez Camelino also make their CSO debuts in this program; baritone Stéphane Degout and bass-baritone Eric Owens round out the cast, along with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe and Anima: Young Singers of Greater Chicago, under the direction of Emily Ellsworth.
On May 14, 16 and 19, Salonen leads a special production featuring the first-ever CSO performances of Debussy’s landmark opera Pelléas et Mélisande, with narrations written by the CSO’s Beyond the Score® Creative Director Gerard McBurney and performed by Academy Award®–winning actress Dianne Wiest.
Salonen speaks of his admiration for the work: “If we think of the history of opera, this [Pelléas] is totally new. This is about the only opera where there is no balance problem. It’s absolutely expertly orchestrated.” He is highly appreciative of the musical language itself: “The way Pelléas starts….he [Debussy] creates an atmosphere right away, with not that many notes…that kind of evocative power is very rare in music.” Salonen has had great success with this work in London, where he recently led the Philharmonia Orchestra in a similar production, which The Guardian described as “…one of Salonen’s finest achievements.”
Baritone Stéphane Degout sings the role of Pélleas and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice sings the role of Mélisande in her CSO debut. The cast also includes soprano Chloé Briot, contralto Elodie Méchain, bass-baritones Eric Owens and Willard White, bass David Govertsen and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe. White also makes his CSO debut in this production.
In the festival’s final week, on May 21, 22 and 23, Salonen conducts the Orchestra and guest soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Ravel’s Concerto in G Major, and in Messiaen’s exuberant celebration of life and passion, Turangalîla-symphonie, with Valérie Hartmann-Claverie performing the rarely heard electronic keyboard instrument, the ondes martenot. The program begins with Debussy’s work for solo flute, Syrinx, performed by soloist Samuel Coles from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who also will serve as the CSO’s guest principal flute for the three weeks of the festival.
Two young French pianists make their recital debuts at Symphony Center on the Symphony Center Presents (SCP) Piano series as part of the festival: Cédric Tiberghien and Alexandre Tharaud. On Sunday, May 3 at 3 p.m., Tiberghien offers a program of music by Debussy and Ravel, as well as Szymanowski’s homage to the two French composers,Masques, Op. 34; Tharaud juxtaposes French works from the Baroque and the 20th century—Couperin, Rameau, Satie and Ravel—on his program on Sunday, May 10, at 3 p.m.
OnFriday, May 15, at 8 p.m., the SCP Jazz series presents an evening of French and French-inspired jazz during the festival. Trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf headlines a program titled Kalthoum influenced by Maalouf’s deep appreciation for the late Arabic vocalist Oum Kalthoum and her epic hit “Alf Leila wa Leila” (1001 Nights). Maalouf assembles a stellar jazz combo including Mark Turner, saxophone; Frank Woeste, piano; Ira Coleman, bass; and Clarence Penn, drums, with special guest Jacky Terrasson, piano, to explore the confluence of classical Arabic music and jazz. French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc opens the evening with a solo set.
Composer, scholar and Beyond the Score® Creative Director at the CSO Gerard McBurney and Gloria Groom, Art Institute of Chicago’s David and Mary Winton Green curator and French Impressionist expert, offer a free public conversation about French art and music on Sunday, May 17, at 1 p.m. at Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago.At 3 p.m. at Symphony Center, the SCP Chamber Music series presents the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant and cellist Yo-Yo Ma with musicians from the CSO, in an afternoon of festival-inspired chamber music including Ravel’s Chansons madécasses and Sonata for Violin and Cello, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Featured on the program is the world premiere of an SCP-commissioned work for bass and cello, Dual, by Matthew Aucoin, which is based on the famous French song, “Frère Jacques”. Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and pianists Matthew Aucoin and Orion Weiss also perform with CSO Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, CSO Principal Second Violin Baird Dodge, CSO Principal Bass Alexander Hanna, CSO flute Jennifer Gunn and CSO clarinet J. Lawrie Bloom.
The Civic Orchestra of Chicago, led by guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, performs Debussy’s orchestral masterpieceLa mer, on Wednesday, May 20, at 8 p.m. as part of a program inspired by the festival. Jacques Ibert’s Bacchanale and Pierre Jalbert’s In Aeternam round out the program.
Wrapping up the festival, on Sunday, May 24, at 2 p.m., the CSO Chamber series at the Art Institute of Chicago continues with musicians from the CSO performing string quartets by Debussy and Fauré, part of the CSO’s regular chamber music series at the Art Institute. The quartet includes CSO violins So Young Bae and Sylvia Kilcullen, viola Weijing Wang and cello Daniel Katz.
Preconcert conversations take place prior to each CSO and Civic Orchestra performance. Further details are available at cso.org/french.
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