at Ravinia Festival

June 30 and July 6 and 7

Ravinia has taken a lot of heat in recent years for its conservative programming and particularly for avoiding new music. The reasons given are well-known–they basically boil down to the CSO’s need to prepare three times its usual repertoire in a week’s worth of rehearsals. Since Ravinia has no “subscribers” as such and is not subsidized like the Grant Park concerts, repertoire cannot be repeated without risking a severe drop in attendance. (Orchestra Hall holds only 2,500 people, while Ravinia can accommodate more than 15,000.) So blockbusters and war-horses are dragged out to help guarantee some semblance of a large audience.

Two weeks ago you could have counted on one hand the times Ravinia’s music director James Levine had served contemporary repertoire here. But over the last two weekends Levine and the CSO presented a mini-festival of music by living American composers–four pieces were included over three programs. That seemed like an inspired idea. But the reason was not that Ravinia suddenly had a change of heart concerning the value of such scores to its audiences, rather that the very rehearsal time that was in such short supply was desperately needed to prepare the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon recording sessions of the four works. In other words this was yet another case of a recording company dictating repertoire.

None of this would matter if the pieces to be recorded were worth hearing or were appropriate to the Ravinia environment. But two of the three pieces I heard were old hat–an embarrassing display of how totally out of touch Levine is with the music of his own time. (John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis dates from 1961, Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences from 1967, Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra from 1956, and Gunther Schuller’s Spectra, which I didn’t hear, from 1958.)

I should say up-front that I have never considered John Cage a composer. Musical philosopher, yes. He made the rest of us think very deeply about issues relating to music, and his radical ideas were the inevitable extension of the extremes that music composition had been taken to–if Cage hadn’t come along, we would have had to invent him. But composition is fundamentally about control, about the composer manipulating and shaping sound to a designated pattern and purpose. When that control is given up and left either completely to chance (the so-called aleatoric school that Cage pioneered) or to the whim of the performer, you may have raw sound. But without the element of organization and meaning, you don’t have music.

I was surprised that Cage himself didn’t disagree with that assessment when I proposed it to him some years ago in a composition seminar he gave here. In fact, he expressed genuine amazement that so many people took his “pieces” seriously. He never has. The last time the CSO performed a piece of Cage’s–an American bicentennial commission–Cage showed up in overalls, and people left in noisy droves during the performance. Some dropped hate notes on the conductor’s podium; others made paper airplanes out of their program pages. Outside, sign-carrying self-appointed defenders of culture who called themselves “The Friends of Brahms” passed out pamphlets and told passersby of the evils of modern music. Ah, the good old days.

What Deutsche Grammophon, Levine, and Ravinia had in mind when they exhumed Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis is anybody’s guess. I suspect it was chosen as an easy filler piece for the album, because it was one of the few American pieces that Levine had performed before (at Ravinia in 1976). The score itself was traced from a star atlas, with the positions of stars chosen at random from the ancient Chinese classic I Ching. Performers are grouped into 20 “constellations,” and the conductor acts as a timekeeper and clock to mark off the various sections of the piece, though the score indicates that silence may be used to extend the length of the piece.

The result is essentially free lunch for the players. Many of the CSO players could not keep tongue inside cheek, and many of them, understandably, didn’t even try. They just squeaked along, allowing random sounds to emanate from their instruments, while many smiled and laughed, looking at each other as if they were schoolchildren getting away with something–even though “teacher” was standing right in front of them. The ten-minute exercise ended with the most interesting sound of the piece–the unexpected passing of a jet plane. I’m sure Cage would have approved wholeheartedly. Levine was barely able to take a single bow and get backstage before the faint, cold applause from the seemingly indifferent audience ended.

Milton Babbitt is one of the last living exponents of another dinosaur of 20th-century musical thought, serialism. A mathematician by training, Babbitt believes that music should be cerebral and emotionless, and that the 12-tone system pioneered by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern must determine every parameter of a piece–not only pitch, but also harmony, rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and even register. This totally mechanical and academic approach has elicited a great deal of indifference from audiences over the years. Babbitt once responded by writing a famous reactionary article entitled “Who Cares If You Listen?” in which he defended the “university composer” who writes only for other composers and musical sophisticates, and claimed that the general public should not be expected to understand advances made in music any more than it understands advances in physics and other intellectual areas.

His Correspondences pedantically embodies these principles, but, unlike many of his works, it is mercifully short (about ten minutes). This too is a piece Levine performed as a young man, when Babbitt’s kind of thinking was in vogue–but the point of view and the music produced from it are about as dated as flower children and Deep Purple records.

The piece is scored for strings and tape, which consists of synthesized sounds laid down by Babbitt at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the 60s, when synthesizer technology was in its infancy. The conductor has no flexibility at all in interpreting this music, for any variation in tempo or lingering over a phrase means that the music will be totally out of synchronization with the tape. Both conductor and performers (to say nothing of the audience) are held prisoner by a machine–a pointless exercise. (Electronic realizations can of course now be made in real time during a performance, allowing for maximum flexibility and expressiveness.)

The CSO strings hadn’t a clue as to what they were playing, and the string ensembling was quite poor. Levine seemed dispassionate, and the audience followed suit. You can’t expect an audience weaned on 19th-century cotton candy to suddenly enjoy a 20th-century jawbreaker. The applause was, again, as uncommitted as the performance.

The Elliott Carter Variations for Orchestra is well-known here, primarily because Sir Georg Solti has used it as a virtuoso CSO showpiece on a number of occasions and has even toured with it. Unlike the dated experiments of Cage and Babbitt, this is a work of lasting, deep musical substance that takes listeners on a unique journey through meaningful sonorities. It is probably Carter’s greatest work–certainly his most grandiose–exploiting the resources of the orchestra in a symphonic and virtuosic fashion, while remaining as intimate and transparent as chamber music. It has taken its rightful place as a masterpiece not only of American music but of the symphonic repertoire.

Unfortunately, Levine seemed to be out of his element conducting this music–he either doesn’t understand it, doesn’t care, or was unable to transmit his vision of the piece to the orchestra. This work calls for a great deal of subtlety and dynamic contrast, and it presumes tight ensembling. Levine’s performance was virtually monotone dynamically, and he was unable to reveal the magnificent levels of structural detail usually heard in the score. Nor was he able to transmit the precision or visceral energy Solti can bring to the work. Perhaps the inadequate rehearsal time was responsible for such a careless performance, which would make it a perfect demonstration of why significant and difficult contemporary works cannot be done effectively under Ravinia’s present CSO rehearsal policy.

Levine did turn in a light and graceful performance of the Mendelssohn Symphony no. 4 (the Italian), evoking the proper spirit of this music. Two concerto performances were also on these programs: the Dvorak Cello Concerto, with Israeli cellist Matt Haimovitz, and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1, with Korean pianist Ju Hee Suh, who was in the unenviable position of filling in with 24-hours notice for an ailing Andre Watts, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

I have greatly enjoyed most of the performances here of young Haimovitz, but his performance of the big Dvorak was a disappointment. Perhaps the humidity was too much for him, or maybe he was just having an off night, but his tone was buzzy and slender throughout the evening, glissandi were often completely glossed over, and there were pitch problems galore. Levine motioned for a tuning between movements, but only a mock tuning occurred. Some wonderful lyricism and superb musicianship still showed through, but I’ve heard Haimovitz sound much, much better.

The best one could say for young Ju Hee Suh was that she tried to make the best of being the wrong pianist in the wrong situation. Her nervousness was evident from her first pounding entrance, and technical mistakes abounded throughout the evening. A sensitive musician is obviously lurking in there somewhere, but this was not the occasion for her to emerge. By and large, her performance became a study in unfocused and coarse banging. Given who she was replacing, a higher caliber soloist should have been brought in, even on such short notice.

I fully expected the Levine-conducted performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to be the highlight of his now-ended 1990 Ravinia tenure. Obviously a casualty of the extra rehearsal time the Babbitt and Carter pieces demanded, the performance was as sloppy and careless as could be imagined, revealing neither spiritual or musical depth. Levine’s tempi were frantic, as if he were galloping toward the apocalypse, and the playing was coarse, unrefined, and choppy. Levine treated the Beethoven as if it were a Verdi, and the result was ridiculous. This is a truly liturgical work that calls for subtlety and spirituality, not bombast.

The vocal quartet looked great on paper–soprano Andrea Gruber, mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos, tenor Gary Lakes, and baritone John Cheek. But only Troyanos was in great voice; Lakes was having projection and timbre problems, Cheek was virtually inaudible, and Gruber sang with the subtlety, grace, and pitch control of a civil-defense siren. Neither Levine nor the singers seemed the least bit concerned with ensembling or balances, and Gruber insisted on screeching her way through all of Beethoven’s glorious quartet entrances. Seldom has such a great masterpiece been so shabbily disrespected.