at Orchestra Hall

May 16 and 26

Since the late 70s, I’ve been keeping a close watch on new orchestral works premiered by local ensembles. More than 50 compositions later, I’ve come to accept the truism that’s been around since the 50s: that the symphony is moribund and composers writing for big orchestras are more interested in creating sound effects than a cohesive formal structure. For examples we need look no further than the commissions–centennial and otherwise–introduced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the past two and a half years. Some, including Rodion Shchedrin’s Old Russian Circus Music, can be dismissed outright as travelogue or ballet music. Others, such as Michael Tippett’s Byzantium and Ned Rorem’s Goodbye My Fancy (both song cycles), though they use the orchestra in refreshing ways, do not pretend to a symphonic form. Most of the remaining commissions have the word “symphony” in their titles, but are they really symphonies?

Since the days of Haydn and Mozart–when the genre reached its first plateau–the symphony has meant a large-scale composition usually with four movements cast in sonata form. What also sets a symphony apart from the rest of the orchestral menagerie is its sustained musical thought–a strong sense of logic and coherence. For most composers, writing a symphony is a rite of passage, a bid to be taken seriously. For a great symphonist like Brahms who strove to equal Beethoven, the process could be long and grueling. Even for lesser ones, the symphony still requires the utmost effort. The 20th century hasn’t been kind to the symphony; composers of various ideological stripes seem unable to come up with convincing successors to the late-19th-century models. Sure, there have been isolated cases of brilliant invention since the last major symphonist, Sibelius–Ives, Copland, Stravinsky writing in tonal vein. But for the most part the symphony as a grand, organic musical statement is no more.

John Corigliano called his 1989 CSO commission Symphony no. 1. Indeed it is a multimovement work for large orchestra; yet it doesn’t hang together quite like a symphony. It’s a montage of emotion-laden tableaux whose contexts–such as reminiscences of a pianist friend–are readily identifiable. By inviting the listener to empathize with the wild swings in the composer’s feelings about AIDS and its tolls on friendship, this music epitomizes the kind of front-page journalism music pioneered by Shostakovich. One wonders whether it will retain its emotional power centuries from now, as the Eroica Symphony has, long after Beethoven’s infatuation with Napoleon’s heroism. (The same question can be asked of Bright Sheng’s Hun: Lacerations, premiered locally by the CSO, which depicts the traumas and aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution. Sheng, however, refrained from titling it a symphony.) Lukas Foss also called his CSO centennial commission a symphony (Symphony of Sorrows), and it too tries to convey the composer’s emotional response to horrific events in his life. Structurally, Foss’s work is more stream of consciousness than a tightly controlled symphony, and the lack of internal resonance diffuses “the sorrows.” I thought the 1989 Tenth Symphony of veteran Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik a distinguished piece of work with little personality–a valiant attempt, like many others, to revitalize the genre. (The Third Symphony of his young countryman, Henryk Gorecki, however, holds promise.)

About the only CSO commission that evoked the grand old symphonic tradition was Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique last fall, though he wisely avoided calling it a symphony. Gnarly, unwieldy, grouchy, and at one hour perhaps too sprawling for its own good, this crypto-symphony accumulates in intensity as its rough-hewn blocks of sound mutate and transform. No wonder the power brokers were too intimidated to award it this year’s Pulitzer. They probably didn’t expect uncompromising intellectual ambition and commitment from a contemporary composer.

Totally the opposite of Shapey in outlook and artistic strategy is his U. of C. colleague Easley Blackwood, who premiered the second of the CSO-U. of C. centennial commissions late last month. Here’s a composer who wants to turn the clock back to 1915, according to a program note for his Symphony no. 5, to “create the style that I think Sibelius might have discovered if he had experimented with modernism.” A fine interpreter of 20th-century piano repertoire, Blackwood once dabbled in electronic music and other notable modern trends. But since the late 70s, after investigating the harmonic and modal properties of equal tuning, he’s rediscovered the poetry of the tonal idioms–with a vengeance. (In 1972 Blackwood was commissioned to write a piece for the orchestra’s 80th anniversary. He delivered his Fourth Symphony five years later, a delay that might have been caused by this artistic crisis.) His sonatas for solo guitar and violin are in a classical style, circa 1829; his 1988 cello sonata picked up where Schubert had left off. Indeed, in the liner notes to the recording of this sonata (on the local label Cedille Records) he is quoted as saying: “Now whenever I get a commission, I ask the client what style he would like the piece in, and try to find an idiom that fills a void in the repertoire.” That’s the kind of remark I’ve heard from jingle writers before but not from academic composers.

In Blackwood’s Symphony no. 5 (which will be repeated in two CSO concerts this weekend), the composer has lived up to his promise, delivering a three-movement patchwork that might have flattered Sibelius and Vaughan Williams by its skillful imitation. Yet if the craftsmanship is impressive, the dearth of original thought and energy is depressing. The music–from the serene introduction to the exuberant fanfare finale–contains enough echoes of the distant past to give the listener a weird sense of deja vu (Blackwood’s effort reminded me of art students’ copies of the masterworks in the Louvre). To call it a symphony, however, is a bit misleading: it works more like a tone poem–albeit one without any poetic impulse. To be fair, much of the music–nicely played by the orchestra under the direction of James DePreist–is appealing. Had Blackwood lived in the 1850s, he’d have been called a near genius, a valued experimenter in symphonic form. In 1992, he’s merely a clever copycat.

There is little danger, I hope, of the retro-minded Blackwood sinking to the level of a Rachmaninoff. Still, he shouldn’t have been at all pleased to find the Russian charlatan’s First Piano Concerto sharing the bill with his symphony. A first-rate piano showman but a cut-rate Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff specialized in music that carries Russian romanticism to wretched excess. He had no use for Sibelius or Schoenberg, though they were his contemporaries. His four piano concerti–the second and third are the most popular–and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini offer plenty of florid gestures but add up to very little. Liberace or Andre Watts might have at least given the first of the concerti a camp sensibility, but not Garrick Ohlssohn. The burly Ohlssohn banged hard on the keyboard, in a giddy pyrotechnical display. The trouble was that he was dead serious. DePreist waved his baton a lot–a futile exercise when everyone else seemed to be on automatic pilot.

After intermission, the CSO performed Schumann’s Second Symphony. Or rather, read through it. I had looked forward to hearing this work live–as I do all four of Schumann’s great symphonies. The performance, alas, was shapeless, enervated, clunky. There were passages of unexpectedly graceful playing in the third movement that made me even angrier at the orchestra for not trying harder. DePreist, the putative conductor, looked hapless and confused.

A performance as shockingly bad as this one raises a disturbing question. What hath Georg Solti wrought in his 22 years on the job? The best music directors of the past were orchestra builders, not orchestra assemblers. Conductors like George Szell (at Cleveland) and CSO’s Fritz Reiner patiently instilled discipline and professional pride in their players; their orchestras could be counted on to deliver decent, sensible performances even when the guest maestro might not be up to par. To his credit, Solti did place several excellent instrumentalists in key positions over the years, and quite often got the orchestra to play the way he wanted, but he never took the time to insure consistent quality playing. And herein lies his shameful legacy: expecting the audience–most of whom paid handsomely for the privilege of hearing a world-class ensemble–to put up with mediocrity. Now that’s brazen irresponsibility.

Speaking of Sir Georg, the globe-trotting maestro was back in town last month to take care of some business. At the University of Chicago he received a Rosenberger Medal, a commendation more for his career longevity than for exalted musicianship. In his gracious presentation remarks, the U. of C.’s humanities dean and Rossini scholar Philip Gossett touched on the fact that the honoree hadn’t been an avid supporter of 20th-century music and local composers during his lengthy tenure. Did I detect a hint of reprimand?

Back in Orchestra Hall on May 16, Solti presided over performances of Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons. The last major work to issue from Papa Haydn’s pen, this rustic oratorio offers equal doses of robust humor and pious thanksgiving. The text (in German), based on a poem by Englishman James Thomson, is full of beguiling references to the wonders of nature–a celebration of country life by overstressed city folks. Yet it’s also an elegy to the passing of the seasons, to the stages of a man’s life. Haydn’s brilliantly inventive touches range from depictions of croaking frogs and chirping crickets to intricate fugues. This is a joyous autumnal masterpiece almost on the order of Verdi’s Falstaff–just as The Creation was his Otello. Yet Hadyn was ambivalent about The Seasons: “In The Creation angels speak, and their talk is God; in The Seasons no one higher speaks than Farmer Simon.” For us, of course, what Simon says is more direct and infinitely more sensible.

In the performance I heard, the orchestral playing was glossy, the singers–Ruth Ziesak, Uwe Heilmann, and Rene Pape–were, for the most part, proficient though on the dull side; the chorus, prepared by Margaret Hillis, acquitted itself with zeal. Yet the overall tone was stodgy and lacked wit. As with his interpretation of The Creation some years ago, Solti treated Hadyn as if he were Wagner’s papa.

The performances were recorded for a CD to be released by London Records. I’m not sure we need another version of The Seasons–especially one from Solti–when better ones are still available. Besides, industry sources tell me that sales of Solti-CSO CDs have been disappointing of late. Maybe–just maybe–the public has finally caught on.