Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, October 1

By Lee Sandlin

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first subscription concert of the season was an OK evening’s entertainment, featuring passable performances of a couple of old standards, the Brahms First Symphony and the act three prelude of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, together with the American premiere of an interesting new piece called Concerto Cantabile for violin and string orchestra by contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. But for me the concert was really more of a chance to catch up on the latest in several long-running soap operas–involving Orchestra Hall, Daniel Barenboim, and the state of classical music generally. I’d spent the off-season thinking about these crises as little as possible, and I’m pleased to report that they’ve all got on nicely without me. There’ve been no miracle cures, but no irreversible declines either. All of them, in fact, seem a little better than the last time I encountered them.

First, the hall. If you’re coming in late, the CSO is spending zillions of dollars on a multiyear rehab intended to fix, or at least palliate, the notoriously crappy acoustics. Last season, after the first big round of work was done, the place did sound better than I’d ever heard it, though there were still a lot of unsolved problems, as well as a new crop of freaky side effects. The balance, for instance, was mighty peculiar: a soloist who stood in the wrong spot onstage risked being swallowed up by a sonic dead zone reminiscent of the “cone of silence” on Get Smart. And while you could hear reverb and overtones for the first time, they had a faintly synthetic quality, as though they were being processed through a not-quite-first-rate stereo system. I’m not the only one who thought this; one night I overheard a couple of teenagers, obviously attending their first classical concert, listening with puzzlement to the sound echo off the rafters and asking each other what brand of speakers the CSO had installed up there.

We’ve now had round two of the rehab, and while I’ll have to hear a few more concerts to be sure, last year’s problems might be history. During the Shchedrin concerto, there was a good balance between the orchestra and guest soloist Maxim Vengerov, and at times in the andante of the Brahms First Symphony I thought I could detect a lovely bloom of reverb, almost like those meltingly sweet resonances in the great concert halls of Europe. Well, maybe that was wishful thinking. But if last year the sound took a soaring leap from the abysmal to the adequate, this year it’s ascending into the decent. I doubt the hall will ever be an ideal place to hear the most delicate chamber music, but at least a full orchestra at peak volume no longer sounds like it’s been stashed in a linen closet.

Then there’s the conductor. Barenboim’s concerts used to be such train wrecks that I got a charge out of praising them–it was a cheap way to feel avant-garde. But I realized on opening night that this gambit is wearing out. Like the hall, Barenboim is getting better. He has patiently built up his technique and has worked out some kind of understanding with the orchestra: they no longer seem to regard him with the open contempt of previous seasons. His movements at the podium have become much easier to follow–though they’re still so minuscule in the pianissimo passages that he looks like he’s stopped moving altogether, which must be hell on the players in the back rows.

But the big change is that his interpretations have calmed down. In his first, floundering years with the CSO, he conducted as though he were trying to find the most bizarre possible take on everything: the most distorted tempo, the least recognizable melodic line. Now he’s offering up familiar works relatively straight. When he does them badly you at least can tell what he thinks he’s up to; when he’s good he seems genuinely assured. And when he’s just middling–as he was with the Brahms and the Wagner–the results are still strong, uncluttered, and not all that tough to sit through.

This was actually something of an accomplishment with the Brahms First–it’s just the sort of tricky, ambiguous masterwork that used to trap Barenboim as if he were a fly in a spiderweb. It has in overabundance Brahms’s greatest strength, his gift for orchestration; he spent so long composing it (off and on for 20 years) that it has stratum after stratum of rich harmony. But it also has his characteristic flaw, a lack of strong forward momentum: unlike a Beethoven symphony, ceaselessly evolving and unfolding, it proceeds by discontinuous jumps as though over hidden fault lines. All this gives a creative conductor a lot of room to maneuver: one can stress the rugged intricacy of the surface, or the glimpses into half-revealed rifts, or the way the fragments, however jagged, somehow cohere into a well-proportioned whole. What a conductor doesn’t often do is what Barenboim did–treat it as a straight-line exercise in theatrics. There were no rough edges at all, no odd flashes of something deeper and more troubling: the allegro was swift, the andante serene, the allegretto blandly elegant, and the finale surgingly dramatic. It might almost have been a drawing-room exercise by Mozart–that is, if the coda hadn’t been loud enough to blow out the windows.

It was much the same with the Meistersinger prelude. Like almost everything Wagner composed, it’s a tangle of ambivalent moods: in this case, the melancholy of the opera’s hero, Hans Sachs, intertwined with the strange, inexhaustible happiness of Wagner’s utopian Nuremberg. But Barenboim ignored that tension and conducted it as a simple dirge. That was appropriate given that it was programmed as an elegy for CSO librarian Walter Horban, who died this past summer. But here again, Barenboim was going for the strongest effects in the shortest possible distance, almost as though he was afraid he’d trip up if he dawdled.

So what’s happened to Barenboim? How did he lose the taste for perversity and shock that used to make his concerts so suspenseful? I’m guessing that when he started with the CSO he believed he could be one of those legendary conductors who stun audiences with their revelatory takes on familiar classics. Maybe he’s now belatedly admitting he doesn’t have that in him. He’s never been renowned for dazzling insights into the intangible; if you listen to his performances as a pianist (and even people who despise his conducting admire his piano playing), what you hear is invariably beautiful, lucid, and earthbound. He’s a master of surface polish and has a good command of internal architecture, but he doesn’t go for bonus points in metaphysics. But is that so bad? I can’t believe that any regular CSO concertgoer would object (particularly any who witnessed atrocities such as his Verdi Requiem a couple of years ago) if Barenboim settles for being that kind of conductor.

And anyway, sometimes the simple through line taken at full throttle is just the right approach. The best thing I heard the CSO play last season was an impassioned take on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth: Barenboim drove the orchestra to such a frenzy that the audience broke out in spontaneous cheering in between movements, and at the last performance he had to ask them to sit on their hands until the end because the premature applause was ruining the recording they were making for release on CD. That’s how far he’s progressed in the last couple of years: how often in previous seasons was he obliged to ask the audience to hold the applause? Granted, nothing I heard at this opening-night concert was in the same league–but it used to seem like a miracle whenever he gave a good concert, and now it’s no longer surprising. Since he’s recently renewed his contract with the CSO well into the next millennium, it’s possible to hope he’ll start doing it with some regularity.

This brings me to the big question: Are people in the new millennium going to be listening to classical music? I’ve decided that I’m not going to read any more worried think pieces about classical music’s shrinking audience and aging demographics–I’ve been reading the same articles for at least 20 years, and as far as I can tell, the situation remains exactly the same. I believe I’ll even expand my resolution and swear off articles about my favorite ongoing crisis, the horrendous state of the classical catalog of most major record labels. Instead I’ll look for signs of hope. I found one on opening night: I think it’s faintly but genuinely hopeful that the CSO programmed Shchedrin’s Concerto Cantabile at the opening concert, because I can’t think of a single American orchestra that would have done so 20 years ago.

That’s not because Shchedrin’s music is so avant-garde. Shchedrin is as conservative as a Hollywood sound-track hack. He spent the bulk of his professional career deep within the Soviet system, turning out officially sanctioned exercises in faux-modernist kitsch–most of the pieces I’ve heard involve scoring folk material in big Shostakovich-style orchestral textures, the musical equivalent of a steel-and-concrete office tower with a peasant mural in the lobby. The fall of the Evil Empire hasn’t awakened in him any suppressed hunger for the avant-garde. Concerto Cantabile is a little odder than what he used to write–it has a tendency to wander off on tangents and not bother to resolve them–but essentially it could have been composed at any time in the past century by some cautious imitator of Debussy or Ravel.

Still, it wasn’t bad. However Barenboim is with the standard repertoire, he’s always been good with new music, and he gave this work a warmly sympathetic performance. The first movement came off as a dreamy late-Romantic mood piece, all wavering and insubstantial textures; the second movement was a tense allegro, like the onset of an anxiety attack; the finale was broad, lush, and fanciful, with an edge of occult nightmare. The whole work is formally interesting because the violin part is woven into the orchestral line with unusual intimacy, so the soloist has to carry more of the burden of development and has fewer opportunities to show off. Maxim Vengerov (for whom the piece was written) happens to be a born show-off, but he seemed intrigued by the challenge; he was deliberately holding back, so the solo cadenzas in the last movement had a feeling of genuine release and satisfaction.

But why is playing such a conventional work a big deal? Because it’s no longer a big deal when symphony orchestras play modern atonal music; audiences may still hate it, but musicians are no longer willing to pretend it doesn’t exist. What’s actually been banished from the concert hall is modern tonal music. A lot of great conservative music has been written in this century–Karol Szymanowski’s radiant choral works, Benjamin Britten’s thorny Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, the eerie orchestral moonscapes of Henri Dutilleux–and until recently virtually none of it was played in American concert halls; it could be heard only on a few rare studio recordings. The modernists detested it for being conservative, and conservative audiences detested it for being modern and unfamiliar, no matter how rigorously tonal it was. Both sides were willing to consign it to oblivion to preserve their notion of how musical history works.

If classical music really is going to survive, then we have to get rid of this collective delusion that there used to be a thing called the classical style, as old and venerable as a Gothic cathedral, that was blown up somewhere around 1915 by a bunch of radical vandals in the name of atonal anarchy. The truth is that musical history has always been a riot of competing styles and genres, each with its own tradition, worldview, ideology, pantheon, and enemies list. It shouldn’t matter what it is, tonal or atonal, conservative or subversive–if you need an orchestra to play it, then it should be welcome in a concert hall. I’m hopeful–today anyway–that the CSO is beginning to open up to all sorts of noncanonical music. Last season, for the first time, they played Dutilleux’ mysterious cello concerto Tout un monde lointain, and it glowed like kryptonite amid an otherwise earthly program. This season they’re programming not only conservatives like Shchedrin and arch radicals like Schoenberg, but a whole gallimaufry of modern styles: Aaron Copland, Carl Nielsen, Edward Elgar, Olivier Messiaen, Philip Glass, Witold Lutoslawski, Charles Ives. It’s hard to imagine these composers in the same room without a fistfight breaking out. But that’s what a concert hall should be for, and–with the steady improvement in the acoustics–that’s what Orchestra Hall seems to be turning into: a place where we can hear all the ruckus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Daniel Barenboim uncredited photo.