Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, October 30

By Lee Sandlin

I went down to Orchestra Hall last week to hear Michael Gielen conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was an interesting program: three crowd pleasers by Beethoven and Schubert, and one notorious crowd displeaser by Elliott Carter. But the concert seemed almost beside the point, because the only thing anybody cares about this season is how Orchestra Hall sounds. The big rehab has been the pretext for a lot of gamesmanship among music reviewers that wouldn’t be out of place in a journal of acoustical engineering; everybody’s trying to demonstrate possession of an ear so fine it’s shattered by a single misdirected overtone. (I think the winner so far has been the Tribune reviewer who pronounced the new acoustics “excruciating,” in the manner of a wine connoisseur gagging over an off-year merlot.) Evidently you’re an auditory rube if you’ve been tricked into thinking the hall sounds better.

What can I say? I thought the hall sounded better. The place used to remind me of one of those food-desiccating machines they hawk on late-night infomercials: the nutritional value of the music was perfectly preserved, but the savor had been sucked out. I often wondered, rather meanly, if that was why Georg Solti flourished there like a desert flower. He was always so vigorous and precise in his immediate effects–and so curiously indifferent to the reverberating half silences where the more elusive mysteries of music are concealed. His glittering brasses and singing strings sometimes seemed like a brilliant tactic to cover up the sonic Sahara where the overtones were supposed to go. Certainly no other conductor has ever coped as well with the dead air in the hall. Some conductors in recent years have sounded like they were leading a ragged mob of musicians against a building.

Gielen’s program last week might have been deliberately chosen to show off the best properties of the rehab: the hall’s ability to now deliver audible overtones and blended instrumental colors. All four of the pieces depend on exactly the sort of subtle shadings the hall used to smother. Beethoven’s second and third Leonore overtures create vast resonances, Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde requires a delicate melting of strings and woodwinds, and Elliott Carter’s ferocious piano concerto demands–well, whatever the hell it demands, it had better not be muffled. The hall came through pretty well. The sound was oddly subdued at times and the musicians uncharacteristically tentative; I got the feeling they still weren’t quite used to being able to hear one another. The brass section in particular seemed worried about being rude. But the big moments all came in their proper places, and the music held together with satisfying ease. By the end I was even becoming reconciled to that weird new Close Encounters-style sonic reflector that hovers over the stage–though I still think it looks like the CSO picked it up at a closeout of sci-fi memorabilia.

The Leonore overtures are always fascinating to hear in close succession. They’re discards from Beethoven’s interminable struggle to achieve a performable version of his only opera (which he called Leonore, though producers ended up calling it Fidelio). Four drafts for an overture survive. Leonore no. 1 and the Fidelio Overture are lightweight works that don’t come off well as stand-alone concert pieces, but the second and third overtures are Beethoven at his most impassioned and luxuriant. They have all of that familiar fire, that fiercely cerebral innovation, and that inexorable drive. In fact, Beethoven had to toss them out because they were so much stronger than the opera. Leonore no. 2 unfolds its themes with rich ingenuity, darting off down fluke side thoughts and surging ahead into unexpected vistas of fresh inspiration. Leonore no. 3 is even more impressive, because it shows Beethoven integrating all this sprawling material into a well-thought-out design–with enough leftover energy to deliver a roaring climax. When they’re played side by side they can be a fascinating demonstration of how Beethoven struggled with and then mastered his overabundant imagination.

That wasn’t what Gielen was trying to show–though his approach worked well enough on its own terms. He’s a conservative conductor interested in straightforward effects, but he did succeed in putting a distinctive spin on each piece. With Leonore no. 2, which opened the concert, he played up the moodiness and reverie; it wasn’t a dramatic reading, but a pleasantly reflective one. The jumps from one theme to the next were handled with liquid expertise, as though Gielen were smoothing away Beethoven’s restless irritability. I would have preferred more stress on the discontinuities and blind alleys–we don’t need to believe that Beethoven always knew exactly where he was going. But Gielen led the orchestra confidently through Beethoven’s most complicated effects, and the result was a good demonstration of the CSO’s newly enriched sound. Gielen played the Leonore no. 3, which concluded the concert, for its flat-out showmanship, for the big crescendos and the famous passages of lyric beauty. Here again I think a less touristy approach would have been more interesting–perhaps one that pushed a bit at its complicated internal workings. But Gielen brought it off nicely, and the coda really shook the rafters.

I was less entertained by the Schubert. Rosamunde was an idiotic play for which Schubert wrote some incidental music; it sank into oblivion after its premiere, taking Schubert’s gorgeous score with it. Not until decades later did anybody think of reviving the score as a concert piece. Gielen conducted them for their obvious pleasures: the inexhaustible loveliness of the melodies and the sweetness of the instrumentation. This was fine as far as it went–after all, like any incidental music (or any movie sound track), Rosamunde was composed for surface impact and not for interpretive depth; complicated music would have distracted the audience from what was happening onstage. But played on its own in a concert hall, particularly at Gielen’s leisurely and assured pace, the thinness of its underlying thought does get a little trying.

Of course my impatience may have had another cause: my suspicion that the only reason the Schubert was programmed was to soothe the audience’s jangled nerves after the Carter piano concerto. In the lobby afterward I heard several people saying that the Schubert “redeemed” the evening or “made up for” the chore of sitting through the Carter. They sounded like North Shore matrons expressing relief that a dinner party hadn’t been ruined by the intrusion of some bounder.

But credit where credit is due. The audience did attend to Carter’s music politely and gave a convincing impression of pleasure at the end. When Carter himself–looking pretty damn good for an 89-year-old man, by the way–came onstage the applause swelled with gratifying enthusiasm. It could have been a lot worse. If the CSO had played this piece 10 or 20 years ago there would have been booing and mass walkouts.

Carter is one of those composers–Harry Partch is another– who think the Western classical tradition is wholly misguided, and he has a lot of theories about how music ought “naturally” to sound. I’ve never had a lot of patience for such talk–if Carter’s way of composing is so natural, then why does it sound like no other music on earth? (Shouldn’t it at least sound like Partch’s music?) I hope I’m summarizing his views fairly when I say that he believes it’s wrong to force different instruments into the same rhythmic straitjacket. An oboe has a different natural speed than a trumpet or a piano, and each should be allowed to play out a musical phrase at its own pace. This is why his compositions sound at first hearing like weird sprays of random orchestral noise. As each new phrase is introduced, a clamor of disconnected responses erupts from different places on the stage, then trail off unpredictably into tangled arrays of shifting tone color. Only after repeated listenings do you begin to sense how carefully controlled and harmonious the jumble really is.

The really impressive thing about Carter is that such an abstract theory produces compositions so distinct from one another. Once you get past its initial strangeness, Carter’s music has a lot of emotional range. His 1977 Symphony of Three Orchestras, for instance, has a wild aerial splendor, inspired (Carter says) by Hart Crane’s ecstatic poem “To Brooklyn Bridge.” The dazzling Concerto for Orchestra, from 1969, is a kind of fountain bubbling over with ever changing flashes of odd melody. But the 1967 piano concerto has a darker texture–it sounds more like a fight. The piano plays all sorts of freakish rhapsodies and cadenzas, while the orchestra emits a lot of threatening blurts and booms and shrieks. Carter wrote the piece in Berlin in the mid-60s, and he’s often said it was inspired by the atmosphere of hysterical tension that followed the erection of the Berlin Wall.

The soloist for the Orchestra Hall performance was Ursula Oppens. She and Gielen know the piece well–they collaborated on the definitive recording (with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, on CD on the New World label). So I have to assume they knew what they were doing when they gave a reading that was remarkably different in spirit from the recorded version–and from Carter’s explicit intentions. They and the CSO played the piece for all it was worth; Oppens was spectacularly acrobatic at the keyboard, and the orchestra followed Gielen’s lead with committed enthusiasm. But Carter wanted the soloist and the orchestra to sound so violently opposed that he even asked that the piano be situated onstage as far as possible from the other instruments; instead the CSO musicians were huddled around the piano as though it were a campfire. The opposition disappeared, and in its place was something murky and odd.

At first I found myself wondering if the old acoustics might have suited Carter better, because the dead air might have islanded the different elements the way he’d intended. As it was, the orchestral colors were smeared together into thick forests of sound, and at times you couldn’t tell what instruments you were hearing. The percussive melody that Oppens banged out of the piano seemed to shake itself into chiming echoes of flute and strings or dissolve into sinister surges of brass. Once I got used to it though, it worked–in fact, I ended up thinking that it was a much more interesting take on the piece than the recorded version.

This performance also fit together peculiarly well with the other works on the program, because its strange overtones and reverberations resembled–in a way those of the recorded version certainly don’t–the complex harmonies of the Romantic movement. For once, Carter seemed like part of a tradition. I’d never had such a strong sense that he was building his music out of pieces of the past, out of strange barnacle-encrusted relics from the world Beethoven and Schubert had taken for granted. Was this a deliberate effect, or a weird fluke of the new acoustics? Beats me. But that’s why a concert like this can be so gratifying.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Gielen foto by Felicitas Timpe.