Chicago, a Remarkable Flutist, and New Music

One of the great honors for an orchestral musician is to be able to stand before his or her colleagues and play a solo work for their instrument. Even more special is to have a commissioned work specifically dedicated to that musician. On March 7th, 2014, I was privileged to hear one of the world-premiere performances of Pour Sortir au Jour (Going Forth by Day), a flute concerto written for the magnificent Mathieu Dufour, the principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony. The concerto, by Frenchman Guillaume Connesson, makes extraordinary demands upon the soloist and could only be pulled off by very few other flutists – and I’m speaking as someone who has enjoyed playing the flute a great deal over the years. According to one review published the day after the performance, there were a number of distinguished flutists in the audience for the Thursday March 6th premiere.

According to the program notes, Going Forth by Day draws its musical inspiration from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. This means that the composer attempts to put forth (or compose) musical material that reflects the thematic material found in the book. The title, The Book of the Dead, was actually the invention of a German Egyptologist, Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of some of the texts in 1842. The actual name for these ancient texts (1240 BC) is The Coming (or Going) Forth By Day. Egyptian religion was based on polytheism or the worship of many deities, as many as 2000, which represented characteristics of a specific earthly force. Most interestingly the ancient Egyptians stressed an afterlife and they spent a lot of time and energy preparing for their journey to the next world.

Going Forth by Day was essentially a navigation map or guide for the deceased to utilize to arrive at the Underworld, the goal of the afterlife. It presumed that there would be various trials and tribulations that the deceased would encounter before reaching the Underworld. Hence the books were comprised of spells, charms, passwords, numbers, and magical formulas for use by the deceased in the afterlife. The text was initially carved on the deceased person’s sarcophagus, but was later written on papyrus now known as scrolls and buried inside the sarcophagus with the deceased. There were often pictures showing the tests to which the deceased would be subjected. The most important test was the ultimate weighing of the heart against Truth. The heart of the deceased was weighed against a feather, and if the heart was not weighed down with sin (if it was lighter than the feather) then the deceased was allowed to continue on.

So did the music and performers reflect this mighty struggle in the afterlife? Mostly yes. The flute solo part was played magnificently by Mr. Dufour and the journey of the deceased (in this case represented by the flute solo part) proceeds from the funeral procession to the separation of the soul from its body to a wickedly difficult dance-like passage for the soloist representing the expectation of judgment and then to the haunting moments of judgment and on to the final dance where the deceased’s soul is justified. However, not everything was coherent from perspective of musical compositional. The flute soloist is challenged and the use of orchestral colors by the composer is varied and interesting, but thematically the composition just did not hang together well.  There was a lack of continuity to the whole work. Flute players all over the world will indeed want to play this piece but, if they cannot pull it off as Mr. Dufour did, it will be somewhat bland and disjointed.

Mr. Dufour’s breath control is amazing and served him well throughout the performance. His ability to spin out the thematic material in a seamless manner was the major triumph of this performance and this particular piece of music. There was form and there were beautiful and well-used orchestral sounds and colors but there just wasn’t enough substance to the thematic material. Hence, the work was slightly too long and, at times, not engaging. Dufour’s flute playing was engaging and he played the roles of charmer and spiritual traveler marvelously. If indeed the Underworld is the goal of this spiritual journey, then the flute-playing of Mr. Dufour is what brought the listener there.