For conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the repertoire he has selected for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s French Reveries and Passions Festival is more than gorgeous music — it’s music he has loved since childhood.

While other teens brought popular records to parties, Salonen offered up a slightly more unique musical selection: “Pelléas was my biggest musical love in my teen years, and I drove my schoolmates crazy because I didn’t go to any party without the Pierre Boulez LP of the piece. When they wanted to listen to Diana Ross or something like that, I said, ‘No, no, no, listen to the fourth act of Pelléas et Mélisande!’ ”

Now internationally known as a champion of Debussy’s magnificent opera, Salonen brings a specially conceived concert presentation of Pelléas et Mélisande to Chicago, featuring visual projections and lighting. (Performance dates are May 14, 16 and 19.) Along with a starry cast (including universally acclaimed Stéphane Degout, who is recognized as today’s pre-eminent Pelléas), the opera also will feature narrations written by the CSO’s artistic programming adviser Gerard McBurney and performed by Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest.

For Salonen, Debussy lives on as a pillar of late 19th-century French music. “On some level, [Pelléas] is the pinnacle of his entire production. In a way, this became the towering achievement for him, and for French music. I think, even today when you speak with French composers and musicians and music lovers, this is the year zero. Time is either before or after Pelléas.”

The composer Olivier Messiaen (whose works will be showcased in two festival concerts) also cited Debussy as a tremendous musical influence; upon examining a score to Pelléas et Mélisande, he declared the opera “a thunderbolt” and “probably the most decisive influence on me.”

Salonen also deeply admires the manner in which Debussy used the French language to drive his opera’s music. “If we think of the history of opera, this is totally new. This is about the only opera where there is no balance problem. It’s absolutely expertly orchestrated.”

The conductor also adores the musical style itself: “The way Pelléas starts … [Debussy] really creates an atmosphere right away, with not that many notes. That kind of evocative power is very rare in music.”

Along with Pelléas et Mélisande, Salonen will conduct another exceptional star of the French operatic repertoire: Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. “[It is] a very beautifully crafted piece of music and drama, but it’s more than that. There are many different layers,” he said. A fantasy one-act opera about childhood, L’enfant et les sortilèges tells the enchanting story of a child who learns compassion. (Performance dates are May 7-9 and 15.)

Again complimenting a composer’s musical language, Salonen said, “There are references [in L’enfant] to the great operatic tradition, including bel canto. Then there are other moments that have to do with popular musical theater and everything in between. It really is a horn of plenty in terms of influences and styles of singing.”

In addition to admiring Debussy’s compositional genius, Salonen possesses similar sentiments about Ravel’s individuality and brilliance. “For me, Ravel is the greatest master of orchestration. The sheer fantasy, scale, perfection of everything — near magical. And he seemed to have that from the very beginning.”

Rounding out his Reveries and Passions concerts, Salonen will lead a program May 21-23 headlined by Messiaen’s tour de force, the Turangalîla-symphonie, featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Like his teenage love for Pelléas, Salonen has treasured Turangalîla since his early years. “I came home from school one day, and Turangalîla was playing on the radio, and it really hit me like a hammer. I thought, ‘If music can sound like this, I want to be a composer.’ ”

For the conductor, Turangalîla stands as an immensely moving musical work with limitless interpretive possibility. “The challenges are tremendous, both mental and physical, but to listen to it, it’s endlessly fascinating, exciting, deeply satisfying,” he said. “There are not many pieces that move from stasis to ecstasy, from ecstasy to deep spirituality,
and from deep spirituality to dance. Every bar is challenging; it’s difficult, it’s physically demanding. It’s like an athletic feat to get through this piece. It’s fun to play and fun to conduct — absolutely fascinating and fun to listen to.

“[There are] moments of unbelievable beauty and lyricism. Once you get to the last chord, you really feel that you went somewhere. In Turangalîla, you have music that is objective in quality, static and spiritual in quality, and erotic in its expression. It’s a cosmic dance, it’s the dance of the stars and the planets. It takes you to some kind of a nirvana.”

Along with Salonen’s stellar concert lineup, Paris-based trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf and his quintet will headline a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert May 15 as part of the festival. Although Maalouf was born in Beirut, his family fled to Paris to escape his war-torn homeland. Maalouf’s multicultural upbringing carries with it an unparalleled landscape of musical textures and sounds, drawn from Arabic and French roots. He cites everyone from his own father (a virtuoso trumpeter himself) to Vivaldi to Michael Jackson as musical influences.

Several of France’s most gifted pianists will perform as part of the festival, including jazz pianists Jacky Terrasson and Jean-Michel Pilc, and pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet,
Alexandre Tharaud and Cédric Tiberghien. Terrasson will perform as a special guest with the Ibrahim Maalouf Quintet. He too grew up in Paris and also infuses his performances
with the music of his French youth, influenced by composers such as Ravel, Fauré and Debussy. Jean-Michel Pilc, who will open for the Maalouf Quintet, also is a teacher, author, composer and the subject of his own documentary. Born in Paris, he is now an American citizen.

For his recital, which opens the festival on May 3, French pianist Cédric Tiberghien will play works by two of his favorite composers — Debussy and Ravel. About making his Symphony Center debut, he remarked, “It has always been a dream to play in Chicago. As for the program, as a French musician, I’ve always played French music, and Debussy is the French composer I love the most. [This recital is] an opportunity to show how wide the French repertoire is.”

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud will showcase his expertise and love of early French piano music at his May 10 recital featuring 18th-century French composers Couperin and Rameau, as well as the 20th-century avant-gardist Erik Satie. Tharaud is known for crafting adventurous recital programs that explore the history of French music, beginning with Rameau and ending with works by contemporary composers. He also is a fan of Parisian cabaret music.

Performing with the CSO, Jean-Yves Thibaudet will offer his stunning interpretations of Ravel’s Piano Concerto and Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphonie to what promises to be one blazingly impassioned concert program.

In addition to symphonic, jazz and recital offerings, the Reveries and Passions Festival, in partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago, will host an afternoon conversation
about French classical music and art on May 17. The lecture, which precedes Yo-Yo Ma’s Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music performance with musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will be hosted by Gloria Groom, David and Mary Winton Green curator of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Ma and musicians from the CSO will present Ravel’s modernistic final composition for voice, Chansons madécasses, as well as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written and performed while the composer was held captive in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

With repertoire spanning five centuries performed by French music’s greatest modern interpreters, the CSO’s Reveries and Passions Festival showcases works both familiar and adventurously new. Celebrating some of classical music’s most sublime works will no doubt bring Orchestra Hall audiences, as Salonen says, “to nirvana.”

Laura Sauer is marketing associate for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

TOP: Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, April 2014. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014