Orchestra Hall, October 7 and 8


Three Arts Club, November 3

The post of composer-in-residence is tantamount to a seal of approval from the establishment, an honor that confers on its recipient a sinecure, plenty of publicity, and usually time off from teaching chores. At the city’s two major music institutions–Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–the position is now occupied by two of American music’s bright lights: Bruce Saylor and Shulamit Ran. Important works from both were given local premieres recently: a selection of Saylor’s chamber pieces headlined a recital program organized by the Chicago Composers’ Consortium, and Ran’s ambitious Legends debuted in style courtesy of the CSO.

It’s not hard to see why Saylor and Ran won their appointments. Both have the kind of blue-chip credentials the establishment values. Saylor, who’s 47 years old, has a PhD from Juilliard, where he studied with Roger Sessions and Hugo Weisgall (who happens to be on the Lyric’s composer-in-residence selection committee) and was given a Fulbright to study with Goffredo Petrassi at Rome’s Accademia de S. Cecilia. Saylor’s musical sensibility is decidedly shaped by the mainstream intellectual currents of New York, where he’s held a number of teaching jobs and is now on the faculty of Queens College.

By all measures Ran is one of the most successful composers working in America today. Her career started early in her native Israel, where stories of her precociousness as a pianist still make the rounds. After a stint at the Mannes College of Music, she was invited to join the University of Chicago faculty in 1973, when she was 24; the invitation was issued shortly after Ralph Shapey, who became a mentor and a friend, heard O the Chimneys, her setting of poems by Nelly Sachs. It’s been smooth sailing, more or less, ever since.

Ran, who’s now on sabbatical from U. of C., has been blessed with an unusually steady stream of commissions, fellowships, honorary doctorates, and prizes, including a 1991 Pulitzer. Along with a handful of female colleagues, including Joan Tower and Libby Larsen, she’s managed to win wide respect in a profession with a long history of indifference toward women (she got the coveted CSO job on the recommendation of her predecessor, John Corigliano). Her tastes are strongly influenced by Shapey, but in her present post she zealously champions new music of all stripes, her most significant accomplishment of the past couple of years. (She coordinated the contemporary-music showcase to be unveiled this Sunday at Orchestra Hall; O the Chimneys is on the program.)

What about Legends, the big commission for the joint centennial of the U. of C. and the CSO? At its best this 20-minute composition, which I’ve heard twice in performance, serves as a flashy introduction to Ran’s creative impulses over the past two decades. Her music, whether a flute solo or a symphony, tends to have two faces. The heroic, formalist side takes its cue from Shapey. Much like her iconoclastic elder (who has compared himself to Beethoven), Ran prefers to work with jagged blocks of thematic material, molding and juxtaposing them for expressive and cathartic effects. In the masterful (and difficult) Verticals and Hyperbolae for solo piano, for instance, she came close to building the same kind of raw-edged, anxiety-ridden universe that Shapey created in his Fromm Variations, certainly the most uncompromising and extravagantly romantic piece for solo piano of the postwar years. Also like Shapey, she’s a serious postmodernist who often plays with and comments on traditional forms and genres. But thankfully she’s apt to be more subtle and disciplined than he is, less carried away with the sort of overstatement that mars his music.

Ran’s frequent use of sensuous, quasi-oriental motifs seems to come from the heart. But this rhapsodic nature–which comes across boldly and appealingly in some of her scores for solo instruments, such as East Wind (for flute) and Inscriptions (for violin)–tends to be slighted in her longer orchestral works. It’s as if she’s reluctant to revel in the merely melodious (perhaps wisely, judging by her 1991 WFMT commission Chicago Skyline, a rather sophomoric pops attempt). In these works voluptuous Middle Eastern strains are used to heighten the tension create by trying to fit various rough-hewn ideas into a coherent whole.

According to Ran, the title for Legends came to mind only after she’d written the bulk of the music. In her program note she offers an obligatory explanation, pointing to “the sense of story telling,” “the notion of timelessness,” and “the feeling of the heroic” evoked by the word. But she also cautions that the piece “tells no specific extra-musical tale.” For her, it’s the technical challenge that really matters: how to use the quasi-sonata form to convey the sense of the cyclical in the forward flow of time, how to make clusters of thematic materials seem refreshing yet familiar?

Upon first hearing, Legends is filled with rhetorical flourishes that don’t quite make a point. It opens with trumpets blaring, marchlike music reinforced by percussion, which soon dissolves into cacophony. Insistent, frenzied yowls from the strings and winds follow. The mood is ferocious, tempered by respites of mystery and awe, as motifs are bounced from one instrumental group to another. At the end of the first movement the confluence of thematic materials swells to a climax that’s left unresolved.

At the outset of the second movement a poignant hothouse melody is played by the cellos, which are soon joined by the other strings in an oriental serenade. A brass fanfare interrupts, and its strains are taken up, in barely distinguishable variations, by the strings. Soon the horns, sounding Straussian, enter accompanied and punctuated by celesta and xylophone in passages that suggest sublime wonder. Then the music surges into the kind of bombast common in Hollywood biblical epics and fades slowly into nothingness. Here too Ran avoids any clear sense of resolution.

The odd, almost ungainly proportions of Legends and its persistent rhetorical gestures–so similar to Shapey’s CSO-U. of C. centennial commission, Concerto Fantastique–may give rise to the impression that the work is not altogether coherent. I’m not sure Ran really achieved the goal she set for herself. In the performances I heard, which amounted to sweaty workouts for the entire CSO, Daniel Barenboim, as is his wont, let the strings be overwhelmed by the other orchestral forces, which meant the pronounced contrasts Ran’s piece depends on to demonstrate cyclicity within the inevitable march of time weren’t quite there. Still, one should tip one’s hat to Ran for tailoring her thoughtful, intricate orchestration to the CSO’s strengths and for daring to play with her conflicting impulses in a creative way.

The program (which will be broadcast over WFMT on November 28) also included Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and Brahms’s Second Symphony. The orchestra’s performance of the Ravel was elegant yet sprightly, but the Brahms received one of those eccentric Barenboim readings. The first three movements sounded mellow and gracious. But in the finale the tempo picked up considerably and the playing was aggressive and roisterous; it was in-your-face Brahms, and I didn’t mind it at all.

Three chamber works by Bruce Saylor, who’s busy completing an operatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending for the Lyric, were introduced to local concertgoers at the Chicago Composers’ Consortium season opener. Saylor, who’s from the east coast, is a relative stranger here; I can’t recall any of his works being performed in the Chicago area before, not even by the broad-minded Contemporary Chamber Players. The compositions on the CCC program covered the first 20 years of his career. “Five Short Piano Pieces” dates from the mid-60s, Four Psalms was composed between ’76 and ’78, and Five Old Favorites, perhaps his best-known work, is from 1983. Saylor admits in his program notes that the piano miniatures are student exercises from his Juilliard days, when he was under the sway of the Schoenbergian row technique. Yet these youthful experiments are well crafted and, as played by Lawrence Axelrod, had the fleeting charm of a haiku.

Whatever Saylor learned about evoking mood from these terse statements was later incorporated into the piano accompaniment for his songs, a genre for which he has a particular knack. His Four Psalms for flute and voice are set to psalms 13, 12, 11, and 8 and sung in that order. Saylor uses the dialogue format of the first three psalms to build up expressive contrasts, with the two instruments echoing or questioning each other’s devoutness. Saylor is not above injecting mimetic touches: when in Psalm 11 the supplicant sings “flee like a bird,” the flute soars like one; the accusations in Psalm 12 are seconded by a fluttery, agitated flute; and the hint of a Shaker tune in the Psalm 8 section adds to the overall feel of faith unburdened by sentimentality. The performance by flutist Mary Stolper and Constance Beavon (Saylor’s wife and muse) was generally on the mark, though Beavon’s vocal line suddenly blurred toward the end.

The impression that Saylor belongs in the company of old-line WASP musical intellectuals like Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, and Ned Rorem is reinforced by his settings of poems by James Merrill, one of the establishment’s poet laureates. In 1976, on the occasion of Merrill’s 50th birthday, Saylor was asked by a mutual friend, J.D. McClatchy (editor of the Yale Review and the librettist for Saylor’s upcoming opera), to set one of Merrill’s poems to music. Saylor chose “Swimming by Night” from the 1962 collection Water Street and later added four more poems to form the cycle Songs From Water Street (1980) for voice, viola, and piano (a recording is available on the CRI label).

Five Old Favorites, scored by voice, flute, and piano, uses poems from the same Merrill volume. “A Dream of Old Vienna,” “The Midnight Snack,” “Sundown and Starlight,” “Event Without Particulars,” and “The Dandelion Sermon” show the slyly witty, aphoristic side of Merrill’s poetry: each conjures up commonplace images with a beguiling directness. To his credit, Saylor again stayed true to the poet’s nuances and cadences. The flute and piano accompaniment is understated, neither instrument overpowering or deflecting the supremacy of the word, and the craftsmanship overall is meticulous. More like contemporary songwriters than like Schumann or Hugo Wolf, Saylor lets the poet’s personality come through succinctly and eloquently. (I particularly enjoyed the oedipal references in “A Dream of Old Vienna.”) Beavon, Stolper, and Axelrod gave a fairly arresting performance, though it was interrupted briefly toward the end by a listener’s premature applause. I haven’t heard any of Saylor’s orchestral music, but it’s a safe bet that Orpheus Descending will be more Tennessee Williams than Saylor.

Neoconservatives like Saylor and Corigliano may be lone voices in the crazy-quilt world of post-postmodernism. Axelrod’s Three Homages (1990) may be emblematic of that world. Its nontraditional instrumentation calls for a brass quintet, a grouping usually reserved for arrangements and Sousa marches. The “homages” are intentionally subversive, twisting and mangling passages from concert-hall favorites by Bernstein (On the Town), Bellini (“Casta diva” from Norma), and Bartok (Concerto for Orchestra). The choice of these three Bs is itself a commentary on all the homages to the more famous three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). This may sound like fun, but Axelrod got so wound up in his parodies that only a very attentive listener can appreciate his scheme. For most of us the three segments, though different in volume and rhythm, are largely an unruly procession of zesty brass noises. The Asbury Brass Quintet did a good job of conveying the work’s jokey nature.

Michael Pisaro’s trio for oboe, cello, and piano was written in 1983, when he was an undergraduate at DePaul. An honorable student effort, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Debussy and Varese, spare in texture and desolate in mood. The reading by Kathryn Gleasman Pisaro (oboe), Elizabeth Start (cello), and Kurt Westerberg (piano) was serviceable. Start, who has a PhD from U. of C., also wrote Quatrafoil, which opened this concert. It’s a brief, neatly crafted work for four cellos, meant to show off the fine gradations in lower string sounds and the technical prowess of the players (in this concert, Stark, Julie Zumsteg, Andrew Snow, and Robert Weber). I was rather tickled by the moments when the four cellos droned and moaned like a quartet of hippos in heat.