Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, April 15 and 22

By Lee Sandlin

I never used to be a fan of Christoph Eschenbach’s conducting. I always thought he was stodgy, overly respectful, and unimaginative. But either he’s changing or I am–because lately his concerts as guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have been turning up on my shortlist of favorites. His two recent concerts are a case in point: one was superb and the other a bore, but I came away from both of them thinking that Eschenbach’s faults have started to look like virtues. His stodginess seems more and more like dignity, his respect like reverence, and his lack of imagination a complete absorption in the composer’s world. I really hope this is all because he’s been getting better at his craft–because otherwise it means that I’m starting to prefer duller things.

Not that anyone would consider the opening work of the first concert dull. It was the Chicago premiere of John Adams’s orchestral work Century Rolls, and it proves if nothing else that Adams hasn’t lost his taste for surprises. Following the swerves and mutations of his style over the last couple of decades has been like following a soap opera: he’s gone from the most sternly austere of the minimalists to his current mode of garish postmodern extravagance, and with each new twist he’s set the entire classical community in an uproar. No other contemporary composer has quite the same knack for holding an audience: even his fiercest detractors (a group that includes most of my friends) still listen to him obsessively, if only to see what kind of travesty he’ll perpetrate next.

With Century Rolls, the surprise is how witty and entertaining he’s decided to be. Formally it’s the usual goofy Adams hodgepodge of minimalism, neoromanticism, atonalism, bebop, and God knows what all, with allusions to everyone from Maurice Ravel to Dizzy Gillespie. This mess is integrated into an orthodox, or mock-orthodox, three-movement piano concerto of fiendish technical complexity: the piano and orchestra aren’t set in opposition, as they are in the average concerto, but woven together in vertiginous arabesques–in one movement they’re on two converging time signatures. This may sound oppressively abstract, but Adams makes it work, in large part because the surface of the music is so exhilarating and iridescent, a shifting rainbow of delicate orchestral colors. When he’s in the mood, Adams can be thoroughly charming; in fact, I can’t remember another contemporary piece that so surprised and delighted the conservative CSO crowd.

The performance was pretty uneven, at least on opening night. The piece was written for pianist Emanuel Ax, who was the soloist; he was in fine form, but he’d clearly had time to master the intricacies of the score. The CSO wasn’t so lucky: it seemed underrehearsed, and some of the more complicated passages were distractingly ragged. Eschenbach saved the occasion by imposing a strong and lucid emotional curve on the score, one that firmed up the frayed ensembles and stressed the crescendos with surprising force. This is what he’s always been best at, and the result was triumphant. He gave the opening movement–which was more explicitly minimalist than Adams usually gets these days–an impressive sense of mounting drama; the swift and steady staccato pulsations grew ever more nerve-racking. The second movement, a slowly revolving cycle of subtle modulations, was as atmospheric as a lighthouse on a fogbound shore. And the fractured faux bebop of the finale was dazzlingly driven.

That was another surprise–that Adams’s music stood up so well to Eschenbach’s brand of old-fashioned interpretive conducting. Adams’s pieces normally sound like they need an android at the helm (and most of his CDs give you the feeling the producers found one). But that’s Eschenbach for you–nobody beats him for revealing that underneath some wild avant-gardist’s tough armor is a pure-hearted traditionalist.

Yet I still ended up wondering how much of that was a trick–in fact, whether there was anything to Adams’s music but tricks. The key technique of Century Rolls, the mixing of bizarrely incongruous styles, has been an Adams trademark ever since the 1986 premiere of Harmonielehre, his wildly controversial farewell to pure minimalism, which sounds like a demented collaboration between Richard Wagner and Brian Eno. Century Rolls is better integrated and more listenable, but I’m not sure it’s an advance–it could be just a slicker version of the same stunt. In this context, the title strikes me as ominous: it refers to old-time piano rolls and suggests a century’s worth of musical styles unreeling on a player piano. But a player piano doesn’t care what it plays–and I can’t tell if Adams does either. As impressive as his stylistic mimicry is, it has no obvious point other than its own indiscriminate virtuosity; he seems to regard the whole history of music as a collection of meaningless gimmicks.

I will credit the piece with one more surprise: how well it worked as a lead-in for the major work on the program, Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. I wouldn’t have figured that the relentlessly fashionable Adams had anything in common with a weird, inward loner like Bruckner, but the two proved to be very congenial company. Maybe it’s not so odd: after all, Bruckner’s style is a kind of protominimalism, built up out of slow, cyclical repetition of small motifs that neither develop nor evolve but inexorably grow more intense. The difference is in their sense of audience. Adams, despite his air of fierce experimentalism, is basically a showman: he has a keen ear for how much oddity the average listener can take. The more adventurous his pieces are, the shorter they are–Century Rolls lasts barely 20 minutes. But Bruckner goes on and on, piling up crescendo after titanic crescendo in a kind of timeless trance. The Sixth Symphony has a meager handful of thematic ideas compared to the exuberant profusion of Century Rolls, but it spins them out for more than an hour.

It’s easy to call the result tedious, but in a way that’s the point. Bruckner is dimly aware that there are human listeners in the concert hall, but his real audience is the infinite. No other composer’s music is so rapt in its contemplation of the higher order of things. Few of his major works bear much resemblance to conventional sacred forms, but all of them are suffused with a sense of transcendence. The Sixth is typical in its billowing grandeur, its vast visionary towers and mysterious abysses; it resounds endlessly with miragelike fanfares and mournfully melting laments, like a eulogy for an army of angels. It’s uncharacteristic only in that it’s a little abrupt, given how long Bruckner can go on when he really gets up a head of steam–his greatest works, like the Fifth and the Eighth, leave no room for anything else on the program.

Eschenbach made it clear from the outset that he was thoroughly at home within the cathedrallike vistas of the score. Often conductors try to hurry up or pull back, hoping to make the music brisker and more endurable. Eschenbach didn’t play any of these games. He displayed a different kind of aesthetic daring–the daring to be literal. He played the symphony the way it was supposed to sound: as limitless and unhurried as an ocean. He got more than an hour of magnificent thunder out of the CSO; their sound was gorgeous, roof shaking, soul stirring–the best performance of Bruckner I’ve ever heard them do and one of the high points in a symphony season that’s already had a good share of triumphs (including Boulez’s Bartok and Schoenberg concerts and Eschenbach’s Mahler Sixth last fall).

There was only one problem: the concert raised expectations for the next one, which turned out to be a dog. The two works on the program seemed perfect for Eschenbach–that is to say, they were dull. But as Henry James, an expert on this subject, once noted, “There is dullness, and there is dullness.” The best you could say about these pieces was that they offered varieties of dullness you don’t get to hear that often.

The opening work was an example of the most peculiar and specialized kind of dullness: the dullness of an avant-garde subversive trying to play it straight. Arnold Schoenberg was the man who, more than any other, wrecked the tradition of classical music, and one of the reasons he was so successful at his sabotage was that he was a fanatical student of conservative harmonic theory. His radical version of atonal anarchy was so persuasive because it emerged from a profound analysis of traditional forms–he knew just where to drop the depth charges so they’d do the most damage. But his studies also meant that when he was in a lighthearted mood he could show off what a master of the tradition he could have been–which is why he took one of the classics of the chamber repertoire, Brahms’s Piano Quartet, and rescored it for full orchestra.

He couldn’t have picked a tougher challenge, as he surely knew. No one after Beethoven had as rich a palette as Brahms, who composed for orchestra the way Rembrandt painted–in thick, darkly glowing textures that seem like the essence of thought itself. His orchestral works are so deeply meditated, so overlaid with countless subtle shadings and afterthoughts, that they seem to have been formed more by geological processes than conscious craft. That’s not so different from some of Schoenberg’s own orchestral pieces, which tend toward the densely overgrown and clotted, so maybe it’s not strange that Schoenberg was able to contrive orchestrations that do–till the last movement anyway–sound a lot like Brahms.

But there are two problems. The first is Brahms’s: he didn’t have Beethoven’s gift for richly unfolding development, so his music tends to have little momentum; it holds together more by emotional unity and dramatic contrast. Schoenberg was unable to give his orchestrations even that much coherence, and the result is a whirl of irrelevancies. The second problem is Schoenberg’s: he wasn’t able to keep the impersonation going. In the last movement, which Brahms described as “in the manner of a gypsy dance,” Schoenberg cuts loose with an absurd mock-Hungarian festival complete with xylophones, tambourines, and a glockenspiel. It’s kind of fun to hear a sourpuss like Schoenberg cutting these capers, but it’s about as Brahmsian as a chorus of pennywhistles.

This jumble seemed to throw Eschenbach for a loop. Compared with his triumphantly assured versions of Adams and Bruckner, this reading was shapeless and ungainly. A more eccentric conductor might have found, or invented, a dramatic through line; Eschenbach simply poured on the energy indiscriminately, as though he thought enough raw orchestral heat would cause the materials to melt into a whole. The result was always terrifically loud, sometimes exciting, and never once convincing. The piece came off the way it always does: as a curiosity that works neither as Brahms nor as Schoenberg.

Still, it was better than the major work on the program: John Harbison’s Four Psalms. This was a world premiere, commissioned by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel. I should say at once that Harbison is a fine composer who has written a lot of music I admire. And I don’t have anything against the Israeli consulate–I don’t know anyone there, but I’m sure they’re nice people. Yet this encounter between composer and patron resulted in the deadliest kind of dullness there is–the dullness of official art.

There’s no point in being mean about it, since I can’t imagine anyone’s ever going to play it again–not unless Israel needs some Muzak for its next World’s Fair pavilion. For the record, it’s a work for orchestra, full chorus, and soloists. It has a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra that’s a setting of an ancient Hebrew prayer. The body of the work consists of settings of four psalms, sung in Hebrew by the chorus, that alternate with passages of Harbison’s own (purportedly the voices of contemporary Israelis), sung in English by the soloists.

The work has some merits. Harbison excels at composing for the voice, and some of his settings, particularly the prelude, are quite lovely. They have the same lucid blend of tradition and innovation that can be heard in his superb mini oratorio The Flight Into Egypt. I also like some of the purely orchestral interludes, which in their wayward inventiveness resemble his more graceful and fanciful works, including his Violin Concerto and his Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra. But the bulk of the piece is made up of highly abstract ensembles and solos that have been bleached of emotional content–they seem designed to offend as few people as possible while still holding on to some kind of artistic integrity, if only by way of chilly artifice. The libretto doesn’t help. It has a lot of the usual boilerplate about Jews and history–“We Jews remember; it is our job, our fate”–and a few glancing references to the intifada’s “eleven-year-old stone throwers whose hands we break.” The whole thing made a dismal contrast to the concert the week before: Bruckner conjures up vast impassioned epics for empires that don’t even exist, while for a real nation with a real history Harbison can concoct only this meaningless exercise in the blandly bold and the boldly bland.

The performance was adequate. The chorus was up to its usual celestial standards, and the mezzo-soprano soloist, Lorraine Hunt, was excellent. The three other soloists were all poor: their voices were characterless, and they had to strain constantly to make themselves heard over the orchestra–but given the platitudes they had to mouth, it was probably a good thing that they rarely succeeded. The orchestra was more than equal to the occasion, and Eschenbach’s conducting was passable, or as passable as you can expect from somebody who plainly wanted to be anywhere in the world other than on the podium. That was the real downer of the evening: he usually conducts with a blissful look on his face, as though he were in a transport of ecstasy; this time his expression was more of a fixed determination to get through to the end, like someone in line at the post office. Still, it was salutary to learn that he had his limits. Almost every time I’ve heard him conduct lately, my admiration of him has grown–but there are still some forms of dullness even he can’t redeem.