Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, February 5

By Lee Sandlin

There’s a rule orchestras follow about new music: they always play it in the first half of the concert, and they always follow it up with one of the blandest, safest, most overplayed works in the repertoire. Their assumption is that audiences hate any classical music composed after around 1910 and will listen to it only under protest. If a new piece were played in the second half of a concert, the logic goes, nobody would stick around after intermission to hear it; and they won’t sit still for it under any circumstances unless they’re immediately afterward given some soothing, nonthreatening classic. Orchestras have been following this rule for as long as I’ve been going to concerts, but I still hope to see it junked. I don’t care how resistant people are to modern music, they shouldn’t be condescended to. Yet they’re being treated like a bunch of squirming children who can’t be expected to sit still in church unless they know they’re going to get lunch at McDonald’s.

That’s why we get concerts like the one Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra put on at Orchestra Hall the other night. There were two works on the program: the world premiere of a major piece called Exody, by the contemporary British composer Harrison Birtwistle, and the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony. It was a pretty good concert, but it was also totally ridiculous. These two works have no business being yoked together on the same program. (It was an even worse pairing than what the CSO had originally scheduled–the Birtwistle and the Beethoven Violin Concerto.) Birtwistle is one of the most intransigent composers alive, and Tchaikovsky has become a byword for the Romantic movement at its most sentimental: the effect was like one of those prison movies where two convicts with nothing in common have to make their escape while handcuffed together.

Still, I’m impressed that the CSO commissioned a work from Birtwistle in the first place. At least it shows that they’re continuing their long-standing commitment to contemporary orchestral music. I’m even more impressed that once they saw what they’d bought they were still willing to put it on. Exody is a harsh and thorny piece even by Birtwistle’s standards, and the temptation must have been strong to pay him off and program some nice Brahms instead.

Birtwistle is one of several contemporary composers who’ve been trying to get past the dead end of atonal modernism. These composers don’t have anything in common except an interest in exploring musical forms and traditions the modernists wrote off as obsolescent bourgeois tripe. Arvo PŠrt, probably the most successful of the bunch, is trying to re-create the shadowy sound world of medieval Christianity; the late Michael Tippett (Exody is dedicated to his memory) had a lifelong fascination with the vitality of popular music–his masterpiece, A Midsummer Marriage, is as upbeat and fizzy as a Broadway show. Birtwistle’s particular obsession is with the percussive and rhythmic music associated with ancient rituals. I don’t know if he’s a believer, as PŠrt is; his works don’t make any direct references (not that I can catch, anyway) to specific traditions of sacred music. Nor is his characteristic sound approachable and melodic, the way Tippett’s is–in fact, its tone palette is much closer to that of academic modernism. A lot of Birtwistle’s work is so abstract you get the feeling he doesn’t actually care how it sounds; he’s just working out patterns on graph paper. But at its best, as for instance in his orchestra piece Secret Theatre, it has a mysterious, primal intensity, like a pagan ceremony at Stonehenge–that is, if the pagans had had a lot of percussion and a taste for advanced chromatic harmony.

Exody is a little slower and more solemn than most of the Birtwistle I’ve heard. It’s also shrouded in quasi-mystical implications, none of which I understand. You might think that the title refers to Exodus, for instance, but the program note supplied by the CSO says the word “exody” “suggests the search for a way out, a prolongation of the act of leaving; in other words, the experience of a labyrinth.” Then there’s a subtitle, 23:59:59: “The last second before midnight has a symbolic resonance that increases exponentially on New Year’s Eve, at the turn of the century and the arrival of a new millennium.” I guess the drift is that we’ll all be spending midnight at the millennium trying to escape some kind of metaphysical labyrinth before the apocalypse hits. (I was thinking more along the lines of a late champagne dinner with my wife.) I don’t object to this kind of cosmic metaphor mongering, but I don’t see that it has anything to do with the music. Surely a work written on this theme ought to have some air of urgency or spiritual anxiety, yet Exody is as grave and primordial as a Mesozoic landscape.

The piece is essentially a sustained and gigantic crescendo that takes about a half hour to build and dissipate. It’s atypical of Birtwistle in that it’s built not on an intricate structure of percussion but on massed string legatos, which ebb and flow with an impressively oceanic rhythm. Over the top of this groundswell Birtwistle builds a series of curious sand castles of brass, woodwinds, drums, gongs, and bells. I thought these little edifices were wonderfully exotic, taken one at a time; the problem was that dozens of them were stacked up, and each one was more intricate, difficult, and top-heavy than the last. After a while I gave up trying to figure out if there was some sort of logic behind their strange flowerings. Birtwistle’s other pieces usually have some sort of underlying recurrent structure that you can figure out if you pay enough attention; one of the secrets of Secret Theatre, for instance, is that its ferociously complicated design conceals a standard four-movement symphony–a device that gives it an almost subliminal inner coherence. I couldn’t pick up anything like that from Exody. It seemed shapeless and monotonous.

Part of the problem may have been the performance, which was enthusiastic and committed but sloppy; some of the intricate detailing came out awfully smeared. But then I liked that–it was a pleasant change from the icy way Birtwistle is usually performed. Sloppy enthusiasm is much more interesting than laserlike clarity. The real problem, of course, is that it’s unfair to Birtwistle to try to sum up such a difficult piece at first hearing.

And it was unfair to Tchaikovsky to have to listen to his Sixth Symphony immediately afterward. Of course with Tchaikovsky you ordinarily figure, who cares? If there were ever a piece worn down to the wheel rim of overfamiliarity and deserving permanent retirement from the repertoire, it’s the Sixth. So what can I tell you? It turned out to be the best performance I’ve heard Barenboim give in years. Everything that I hate about this symphony–its ramshackle construction, its lurid overstatement, its sleazy sentimentality–came out impassioned, beautifully sculpted, and drivingly energetic. This is what a great conductor is supposed to do, and I still can’t believe he had it in him.

The keynote was set by the opening measures. They normally play like an odd tangent: an adagio in E minor that Tchaikovsky quickly shoves aside for a B minor allegro. But Barenboim lingered over them and heavily underlined their air of sorrow and foreboding–it was like a declaration that he was actually going to take seriously the symphony’s famous nickname, Pathetique. What followed was a superbly organized reading of a movement that’s normally a ragbag; the overriding mood of melancholy forced the disconnected bits of allegro and andante to fall into place like iron filings around a magnet. Barenboim sped up in the middle movements; he zipped through the second-movement dance as though riding a fast-forward button and built the third-movement march into such a frenzy of emotional turmoil that the audience erupted in an unexpected–seemingly involuntary–ovation. The last-movement adagio slowed again into a deeper rhythm; it was an immense unfolding of the darkness foretold at the outset–somber and exquisite, icy but heartbreaking.

The performance was so striking that I couldn’t help wondering if Barenboim was being affected by the circumstances of the real world. He began the concert by announcing the death of Margaret Hillis, the founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. This followed the death of Georg Solti last fall and the death of Barenboim’s own father last month. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mournful undertow of the Sixth struck Barenboim as a perfect channel for expressing a private sorrow. In fact, Barenboim got all the wildly disconnected moods of the piece, from fury to weird gaiety to anguish to regretful acceptance, to cohere so flawlessly it was like hearing a musical demonstration of the stages of grief.

It’s a shame that such a brilliant performance seemed to have been programmed mostly to soothe the audience’s shattered nerves after the Birtwistle. I wondered if they could really register the excellence of what they were hearing–the overnight reviews, for instance, spent almost all their space on Exody and barely noticed that the Tchaikovsky had been played. Who could blame them? I found Exody exhausting and could barely work up any interest in the Sixth when it started. And that’s the source of my deepest grudge against programs like this. A concert should be an emotional whole, where the works reinforce one another, or show off contrasting qualities, or just spark some fresh ideas when put side by side. But these two pieces undercut each other, and the result was a shambles.

Orchestras have to get rid of the idea that the classical repertoire is frozen and nonnegotiable–a sort of combined fortress and museum where new works appear only fitfully, for brief gate-crashing appearances, before the guards hustle them out the door again. A work like Exody might really shine as the climax of a program of contemporary music, where listeners would have a chance to prime themselves for its difficult sound world. I refuse to believe that such a program would be a guaranteed flop; there are a lot of contemporary pieces that even the most conservative classical fan could enjoy, that are never programmed only because it’s assumed that the audience has a blanket fear of the unfamiliar. There is a frozen, nonnegotiable tradition of classical music: it’s the one fixed in place on CDs. People should be going to the concert hall to hear something new. It shouldn’t matter if it’s a new piece of music or a new interpretation of an old standard. Even in an age of perfect digital sound reproduction, there’s nothing like the thrill of a live performance by an inspired conductor and a great orchestra at full throttle. If Barenboim can prove this with Tchaikovsky, anything’s possible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Harrison Birtwistle photo by Richard Kalina.