Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, February 15

Is 12-tone music really good for you? Should we be ashamed of gagging as if it were overcooked brussels sprouts when we consume it?

Arnold Schoenberg, who spearheaded the atonal movement, once called 12-tone composition “the music of the future.” It isn’t without a certain intellectual interest, chiefly for the mathematical games it plays with musical forms, and it still has defenders, who manage to get it scheduled so that we can all reevaluate our impressions of it on a regular basis. But it sure is ugly.

The chromatic scale has 12 notes, but conventional composition usually includes only those notes that fit into a given key’s tonality. Over the last few centuries our idea of what’s tonal–which may be very loosely defined as “what sounds right”–has slowly evolved to the point that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring doesn’t sound weird at all.

But the 12-tone scale uses notes in a system that’s still jarring to the ear, even though we’ve been listening to it for decades. With no one note serving as a grounding point for the melody, it’s characterized in part by its difficulty, since it’s entirely nonintuitive and, indeed, usually counterintuitive for the performer based in traditional Western classical music forms. Some neurological studies suggest that it’s counterintuitive for any normal ear: the brain likes certain patterns, and 12-tone refuses to provide them.

In Schoenberg’s original system, based on the work of Austrian theorist Josef Hauer, all 12 notes of any given tone row–a set of pitches arranged in a quasi-melody–must be played before any notes can be repeated. The row can then be played in various inversions–upside down, backward–but otherwise it can’t be changed. This arbitrary arrangement has proved hard on performers, because it simply ignores the optimal ranges of voices and instruments, few of which can produce all notes with equal quality or strength. It’s also proved artistically stifling–even Schoenberg eventually broke out of its rigidity.

The real problem with 12-tone composition–any 12-tone composition–is that it isn’t really music, because it doesn’t involve our emotions. It’s strictly an intellectual exercise, an empty mathematical game that happens to use musical notes. It emanates entirely from the left brain, not the soul–a fog of angst that eventually suffocates the listener.

Many musicians like 12-tone precisely because of the mathematical game element. And certain listeners–a small and exclusive coterie–applaud 12-tone for a less appealing reason: the snob factor involved in embracing music that most people instinctively dislike. In the world of music academics one gains face easily only by being patronizing about the tastes of the majority.

In his little speech before he played Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto last week, Emanuel Ax implied that the work has never been appreciated because audiences are full of dullards. But the fault likes squarely with the music.

Schoenberg composed his concerto in 1942, soon after he took up residence in Los Angeles. He claimed it was a reconciliation of the Romantic tradition of the 19th century and atonality, partly because he was breaking his rules about things like how notes had to be repeated. But this 18-minute work in four pseudomovements is more like the Romantic tradition put into a blender and spread far too thickly onto atonal toast. Some individual moments sound all right–and their footing in Romanticism is audible–but the basis for the composition is still too spiky. Ax quoted Leonard Bernstein as saying that the work is “Schumann with wrong notes.” It may sound better than most adventures in 12-tone, but that isn’t saying much.

Ax, with his amazing virtuosity, dry humor, and self-deprecating air, makes as convincing an ambassador for this music as we’re likely to find. His playing was superb and energetic. It’s worth noting that he found it necessary to play from a score, which ways something about the density and difficulty of the composition. Guest conductor Mariss Jansons and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ably accompanied him. Well, nice try.

Jansons, a Latvian, and the CSO opened the concert with an athletic reading of Sibelius’s Symphony no. 1. Jansons is a member of the muscular school of conducting, with powerful motions that create a strong beat and socko entrances. His Sibelius was expressive, multidimensional, and forceful, though it occasionally just missed being ponderous. The CSO brass section was a standout.

But the strengths Jansons brought to the Sibelius gave Ravel’s Suite no. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe a garish feel. It had limpid moments as well as forceful ones, but I had the impression Jansons was wrestling with the score and orchestra, rather than persuading them. The solos of CSO principal flautist Donald Peck in both the Sibelius and Ravel were remarkable for their fine technique and range of feeling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jenny Bauman.