French Festival

In May 2015, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Orchestra, Chorus, and numerous soloists in the French Reveries and Passions Festival. The three weeks of concerts featured Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, Syrinx, and Pelléas et Mélisande with Jenny Carlstedt and Stéphane Degout in the title roles; Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on ondes martenot; and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Piano Concerto in G major with Thibaudet, and L’enfant et les sortilèges.

“Part conductor, part traffic cop, he kept the semistaged performance flowing tightly and smoothly, securing gossamer textures and refined playing from the Orchestra, and crisp singing from the soloists and choruses,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune after L’enfant et les sortilèges, the Orchestra’s first performances of Ravel’s one-act opera. “If other interpreters have brought out more of the work’s charm and sentiment, Salonen’s cooler, analytical manner presented every measure of this delicious little opera in as clear and direct a manner as possible.”

Regarding Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—also a first performance by the Orchestra—von Rhein added, “The CSO players may be unfamiliar with this music but so fully did they respond to Salonen’s precise, urgently dramatic direction—particularly in the atmospheric preludes and interludes—that you would have sworn Pelléas is standard repertory for them. I cannot recall when I have heard Debussy’s orchestral music played so ravishingly, or so well.”

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie on May 21, 2015 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie on May 21, 2015 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Following Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, von Rhein praised the Orchestra’s “terrific” performance. Salonen “clearly appreciates what makes this mad behemoth unlike anything else in twentieth-century music. His keen ear, his long experience with shaping and organizing its multiple sound-layers, and, most of all, his ability to inspire an orchestra of more than 100 musicians to share his insights and convictions, and convey them to the audience without embarrassment, made the performance feel like an occasion, not just a concert. . . . [Salonen kept] detail in sharp focus rather than wallowing in emotive sensuality for its own dubious sake. Messiaen, the conductor would argue, does quite enough of that without needing any help from the podium. The Orchestra came through magnificently for him in every department, not least the platoon of percussionists.”

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