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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra always seems to perk up when its principal guest conductor, Pierre Boulez, comes to town. The maestro has the cleanest baton technique anywhere, and his intimate knowledge of the atonal contemporary works he's so fond of has helped put the CSO's most recalcitrant members at ease. Under his exacting hand the ensemble has even transcended the orthodox interpretations of Mahler's symphonies, emphasizing lucidity and intelligence over lushness and sentiment. This week's concerts present Boulez and the orchestra with an especially unusual challenge: Concertate il suono, a joint commission from the CSO and the Cleveland Orchestra written by Boulez protege Marc-Andre Dalbavie. Like Stockhausen's Gruppen, the piece splits the orchestra into several subgroups. An update of the Baroque concerto grosso, which treats different sections as soloists playing with or against the rest of the orchestra, Concertate calls for an onstage group of brass, percussion, and strings to be supplemented by four smaller clusters of musicians at the cardinal points of the concert hall; here they'll be on opposite sides of the lower balcony, in back of the gallery, and onstage with the larger group. (The far-flung musicians will all be able to see Boulez via closed-circuit video.) Dalbavie has long been interested in how spaces shape music--the scattering and attenuation of sound waves, for instance, can transform timbres so drastically that it's hard to tell a flute from a clarinet. Over the 25-minute course of the piece the five ensembles flow together like tributaries forming a river; they start out with five distinct tempos and different harmonic and rhythmic emphases, overlapping and interacting intricately, but by the end they're all in unison. Dalbavie's preferred idiom--repetitions, pulsations in dynamic level, and subtle, organic textural shifts--can be hard for an orchestra to render, but the CSO has had years of exposure to Boulez's very similar musical language and should be up to the task. Also on the program are Bartok's ballet suite The Miraculous Mandarin and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with soloist Mitsuko Uchida, a pianist of formidable technique, intense concentration, and elegant understatement. Thursday and Saturday, May 3 and 5, 8 PM, Friday, May 4, 1:30 PM, Sunday, May 6, 3 PM, and Tuesday, May 8, 7:30 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000.

TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Mastroianni.

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