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Ian Bostridge
17 Jun 2009

Ian Bostridge at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

In a recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert featuring twentieth-century instrumental and vocal compositions Ian Bostridge sang Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations under the direction of principal conductor Bernard Haitink.

Ian Bostridge at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra


The concert opened with a contemporary arrangement of early music, Steven Stucky’s transcription of Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, this version receiving its first performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The second half of the program offered a masterful account of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, the performance here yielding considerable opportunity for both soloists and orchestral ensemble.

The brief transcription of Funeral Music in four parts, beginning and ending with a march, honors the musical spirit of Purcell while offering a modern interpretation of the same. After an introduction emphasizing low notes for the flute, a steady piano accompaniment gives way to the drums signaling a dignified realization of death. Following this opening, the CSO brass played an appropriately somber dirge, indeed one associated with the elevated stance of passing royalty. An oboe solo, performed here with great effect by Eugene Izotov, was echoed by the brass, such types of musical dialogue informing much of the remainder of Stucky’s transcription of Purcell. Sustained notes held by the use of the vibraphone introduced a continuity leading to a final stately reprise, with the repetition of drums calling the funereal tone into an ultimate focus.

The significance of Purcell’s music for Benjamin Britten is certainly recognized from the latter’s instrumental compositions, and the pairing in this concert with Les Illuminations functioned as yet further homage to the earlier composer. Britten was first inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud in the late 1930s and finished in 1940 his cycle of songs, Les Illuminations for high voice and strings, based on Rimbaud’s texts of the same name. The singer’s approach to the poetic texts by Rimbaud and interaction with the string orchestra is key to a unified approach in a performance of this cycle. Bostridge has given ample consideration to a multi-faceted approach evident in this program. He injects a sense of drama without appearing overwrought in tone while, at the same time, maintaining sufficient ironic distance so that his performance serves as both song and commentary on the text and music being performed. In the introductory lines of “Fanfare” Bostridge declares with proud conviction “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade” [“I alone have the keys to this parade”]. When these words are repeated and varied ending piano on the phrase “cette parade sauvage” [“this savage parade”], the singer becomes a keeper of secrets, one who bears the mask of an omniscient observer. With this alternating perspective Bostridge guided the listeners through the following series of poems chosen and set by Britten. “Villes” [“Cities”] details the varied and stirring activity of the modern city, filled with moving individuals and their means of transportation. To illustrate the mix of ancient and modern — the seeming paradox of nature, myth, and metropolis — Bostridge intoned, in effective succession, a rising followed by a descending scale on the verbal forms in the phrase “la lune brûle et hurle.”[“the moon burns and howls”]. At the close of this song the paradox of frenetic movement and ancient model was capped softly by Bostridge as he asked “d’ou viennent mes sommeils…?” [“from where does my sleep come …?”] with tender inquisitiveness. In the following text of “Phrase” the lyrical I speaks, almost as one of the fates, stretching cords from one pinnacle or window to another. While describing movement here with the statement, “et je danse” [“and I dance”], the tenor emphasized the physical verb starting on a crystalline high note that progressed, glissando and gracefully all-encompassing, to a concluding low. In the following three pieces, before an orchestral interlude, the tone sways between the private and the open spheres. “Antique” is a direct address to the son of Pan, both description and attempt to communicate, during which Bostridge used his voice to suggest the musical instrument associated with the deity. The range of notes struck so effectively by the singer in the conclusion to this song evoked the female and male aspects of the “double sexe” as cited. In “Royauté” an unidentified couple indeed play at the roles of royalty for an extended day, their self-absorption brought out especially in the ironic detachment of this performance. The movements of the ocean and foam slapping against a boat in “Marine” were convincingly imitated by melismatic effects on “l’écume” [“foam”] and the final emphasis of “tourbillons de lumière” [“whirlpools of light”].

As the first in the second group of texts following the orchestral interlude, “Being Beauteous,” as titled by Rimbaud, is replete with contrasting images that call into question the concepts of actual and idealized appearance. Through notable shifts in tempo Bostridge underlined these contrasts while allowing the text to maintain its own organic flow. The tone of the song was aptly concluded with a low, almost heavy vocal projection on the words “de l’air leger” [“of the soft air”], suggesting by the performer antithesis in one’s perceptions of beauty. In the final two songs, “Parade” and “Départ,” the soloist released a crescendo of varied emotions as he observed and commented on the parade of humanity, a further and elongated assurance here given that the key to the parade rested with the perception of this voice. In “Départ” Bostridge looked truly weary as he sang “Assez vu” [“Enough seen”], the slow and quiet intonations now concluding a cycle of contradictions, as the final phrase, “l’affection et le bruit neufs” [“the new affection and noise”] trailed softly into memory.

In the Symphony No. 15 by Shostakovich, performed after the intermission, Haitink gave cohesive direction to a sprawling work that blends original motifs with ample quotation. In the first movement, marked Allegretto, an initial motif was introduced by the solo flute, played poignantly by Mathieu Dufour and leading into a series of other solo parts in succession. After the bassoon, oboe, and trombone contributed their parts, combinations of instruments — e.g. flute and brass, piccolo and strings — were punctuated by intermittent references to the William Tell overture by Rossini. In the second, Adagio movement a solo for cello was played exquisitely by John Sharp, who was subsequently joined by Dufour in a duet followed by the full complement of strings. The concluding movements of the Symphony, with various tempo markings including — again — Allegretto, contain yet further quotations from the composer’s own works as well. The integration of the past and transformation into a new composition remained the guiding force behind Haitink’s memorable interpretation.

Salvatore Calomino

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