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 br˚le 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 “RoyautÈ” 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’Ècume” [“foam”] and the final emphasis of
“tourbillons de lumiËre” [“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 “DÈpart,” 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 “DÈpart”
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

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

image_description=Ian Bostridge
product_title=Ian Bostridge at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra