Pierre Boulez’s first conducting appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969 were greatly anticipated. His book Notes of an Apprenticeship had recently been published in English, and the Orchestra would be performing his music — the U.S. premiere of Livre pour cordes (two movements from his Livre pour quatuor from 1948, reworked in 1968 for string orchestra) — for the first time.
The concerts also included the CSO debut of Jacqueline du Pré in Schumann’s Cello Concerto on February 27 and 28 and the CSO subscription concert debut of her husband, Daniel Barenboim, in Bartók’s First Piano Concerto on February 20, 21, and 22. (Barenboim first appeared with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on June 24, 1965, in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with André Previn conducting.)
In the Chicago Tribune, Peter Gorner wrote: “If Diogenes [the cynic] could have made it to Orchestra Hall last night, he would have blown out his lantern and become a believer. For there have existed few composers more honest than Debussy, Bartók, Webern, and [Boulez’s teacher at the Paris Conservatory] Olivier Messiaen. And there are few interpreters more honest than Pierre Boulez. Honesty depends upon conviction, and Boulez firmly believes in the classics of our century. He also is immensely qualified to spread the word, possessing a composer’s mind, a conductor’s savvy, and a poet’s soul.”
On Barenboim, Gorner continued: “The Bartók was his flashy First Piano Concerto, with the ubiquitous Daniel Barenboim as soloist, and a magnificent one at that. His technique made the concerto sound easier than it is, and he conjured the steely touch and native awareness of cumulative energy to make it work. The colloquy between percussion and piano in the andante which followed sounded flawless.”
In his review for the Chicago Daily News of the second week’s program, Bernard Jacobson wrote: “Boulez has emphasized that in its new form [Livre pour cordes] is far more than a mere arrangement of the original — it is a full-scale recomposition, tackling the same musical problems but in terms of an entirely different medium. The result is music of formidable textural complexity, great sonorous variety, and powerful dramatic impact. . . . Yet Boulez’s characteristic intellectual control has ensured that the myriad events cohere in a rigorous organization of immediately perceptible unity.”
And in the Chicago Tribune, regarding the “immensely gifted young cellist Jacqueline du Pré,” Thomas Willis added: “[She] plays for keeps all the time. Each note has maximum persuasive power. There is a total commitment of both physiological and musical resources. The melodic line is maximally weighted. When she is not playing, she is often reacting to the orchestral dialog — so much a part of the Schumann concerto.”