CIVIC ORCHESTRA OF CHICAGO
at Orchestra Hall
July 7 and 30
GRANT PARK SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
at the Petrillo Music Shell
July 15 and 16
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
at Christ Universal Temple
August 18 and 19
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has two great hopes for the 90s, and neither of them is Daniel Barenboim. The choice of Barenboim as Georg Solti’s successor is sure to remain controversial for some time to come, but two of the symphony’s underpublicized recent appointments are already garnering kudos.
Kenneth Jean, the associate conductor, and Michael Morgan, the assistant conductor, came on board a couple of seasons ago. Soon after, they were put in charge of the Civic Orchestra–the symphony’s training arm along with choirmistress Margaret Hillis. They will also fill in during the CSO’s subscription season. (Incidentally, among the Big Five orchestras, the CSO now boasts the best ethnic balance at the top: Barenboim is Jewish, Jean Asian, and Morgan black.) Jean, who’s a bit older than Morgan, is musically more polished and more assured, attentive to phrasing and architectonics. Morgan, who’s also in his early 30s, has seemed more superficial, more tentative, not quite up to the task of plumbing the emotional complexities of challenging masterworks. At least, that was what I thought after observing the pair in their joint Civic debut last year. Since then, after several more performances by both, my regard for Jean has not changed much: he’s triple-A material poised for the majors. The surprise is Morgan.
Educated at Oberlin and Tanglewood, Morgan has had as mentors such luminaries as Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller. Since the early 80s, Morgan has been on the apprentice conductors’ circuit of second-tier ensembles both here and in Europe. But he’s by no means your average young maestro. For one thing, he’s a rarity in the world of classical music, where blacks thus far have gained prominence in only one area–singing. The handful who make up the older generation of black conductors cannot be accused of superb musicianship. Take, for example, Paul Freeman of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Throughout his long career he’s been an earnest and persuasive champion of black music, but when it comes to the classics, he’s often at a loss. His interpretations tend to be tasteful, unadventurous, and slick, as if he were going out of his way to be respectable and safe, and much the same can be said about many of his black colleagues. Morgan so far seems free of this malaise. His has been a steady progress, the gradual emergence of a noteworthy artistic identity.
The strides Morgan has made were evident in four of his conducting stints this summer: two with the Civic, one at Grant Park, one with the CSO. If the programs were summer-weight potpourris studded with crowd-pleasers, at least their diversity offered Morgan a chance to demonstrate his range. In the first of the Civic concerts, the conductor and his charges handled Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye (“Mother Goose Suite”) with sensitivity and fluidity, neatly evoking the magical world of childhood–although I did miss the blend of transparency and sensuousness, of innocence and suavity that Pierre Monteux brought to the music. In Brahms’s Symphony no. 2, that long stretch of romantic lyricism drenched in sunshine and sighs, the Civic’s string sections were not unanimous in their playing, and in spots the horns were unruly. Morgan kept his composure nonetheless, doing the best he could to salvage an interpretation that was surprisingly coherent. “Dance of the Hours,” from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (and Disney’s Fantasia), kicked off the concert; it was played with uncommon gusto.
Morgan returned to the Orchestra Hall podium at the end of July, overseeing a Civic program top-heavy with Pictures at an Exhibition. The Ravel/Mussorgsky opus is usually regarded as a paragon of modern orchestration, favored by student ensembles for the variety of moods it paints. In the Civic’s performance, as in Morgan’s earlier outing, the brass and the winds were not always in rein, despite Morgan’s urgings. The result was not perfect, but neither was it the blurry mess often committed by youth orchestras eager to sound colorful.
At Grant Park, in mid-July, Morgan had more seasoned players to work with. And he took advantage of it. In their hands, Copland’s Appalachian Spring was, for the most part, a jaunty, carefree ride through an American Ruritania. Less impressive was Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Subdued and sluggish, it came off as a drowsy reverie punctuated by traffic noise; only the finale, the familiar “Wedding March,” showed any vigor. The revelation of the evening was The Golden Bird, a musical retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale by William Russo, with an assist on the libretto from Albert Williams. Deftly mixing elements of jazz, blues, Menotti, and Chopin, the Columbia College prof has fashioned a beguiling work that ought to become a children’s classic. The various roles were ably sung by soprano Carol Loverde and baritone Robert Orth; the actions were buoyantly pantomimed by members of the Lynda Martha Dance Company, who added to the uncomplicated delight. Morgan definitely has a knack for children’s music.
The high point of Morgan’s summer came in mid-August, when he took the CSO on a two-concert gig at the Christ Universal Temple. It was one of the orchestra’s occasional–and commendable–forays into community relations and its first appearance in a Chicago venue south of Mandel Hall, in Hyde Park. Not surprisingly, the Friday event I attended drew a capacity crowd–and was there any doubt of that, given the cachet of the CSO and the Reverend Johnnie Colemon’s ability to pack ’em in?
I had looked forward to Morgan’s treatment of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, an underheralded cornerstone of American cultural history. In 1931, it was the first symphonic music by a black to be played by a major orchestra. And Still, as the program book notes, was deemed “one of our greatest American composers” by Leopold Stokowski. But alas, a traffic jam prevented me from hearing anything of the piece except the last strains. They sounded majestic, though not enough for me to form an opinion of the work. The audience (more than 4,000 strong) evidently thought highly of it.
The evening was billed as a showcase for black talent, which meant the presence, in addition to Morgan, of soprano Geraldine McMillian, baritone Ben Holt, and the Christ Universal Temple Ensemble, under the guidance of Robert Mayes. The soloists took center stage for five songs by Richard Strauss. Backed up by a sympathetic, fervid accompaniment, both were in tip-top shape, eloquently traversing a gamut of emotions from passion to pathos. Holt in particular sang and deported himself like a Wagnerian; McMillian has the elegant stage manners of a Kathleen Battle, but will she get noticed in a field already crowded with first-rate black divas?
After intermission, Morgan trotted the orchestra through Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7. The performance was sprightly yet graceful, brisk yet precise–a triumph of tempi and style over substance. More often than not, it reminded me of Bernstein’s recorded version with the New York Philharmonic. I wish I could be charitable about what the temple ensemble did to the excerpt from Brahms’s A German Requiem, which followed. The singing was no better than lax and tepid, and the orchestral accompaniment was equally lackluster. The singers were much perkier for the spirituals, confirming the ensemble’s reputation as one of the best church choirs in the city.
All in all, Morgan has displayed genuine and remarkable conducting instincts. In Europe before the war, talents such as his were carefully nurtured–given secondary conducting posts until they reached artistic maturity around the age of 40 or so. That’s how Szell, Klemperer, and Erich Kleiber got their start. Nowadays, when a pubescent sensation like Esa-Pekka Salonen is allowed to ascend to the pressure-cooker helm of a major orchestra like Los Angeles, one cannot but wonder about burnout and staying power. Let’s hope that the CSO will hold on to Morgan for a while so we can watch his musical personality ripen. In the meantime, the young maestro is already in an enviable position–having at his disposal a fine practice instrument and occasionally a Stradivarius.