at Orchestra Hall

April 26 and May 12

The notion of listening to a training orchestra, however fine, doesn’t seem very enticing. I used to hear the Civic Orchestra on a regular basis when I was in college, receiving tickets as a bonus to my CSO “University Night” series (whatever happened to those wonderful conterts?). We music students would go because we had many friends playing in the orchestra and because it was our chance to sit in the box seats, which, to our surprise, turned out to be among the deadest in Orchestra Hall (because you are below a ceiling–as you are at the back of the main floor or anywhere in the second balcony–that shields the sound from you). But even knowing people in the orchestra didn’t make these concerts interesting.

Still, when a spring collaboration between the Civic and New Music Chicago was announced, that seemed like a good excuse to hear the group again. Michael Morgan, who had proved himself time and time again with the CSO, would be conducting. And even if the group was too much for Morgan, there was a slew of new pieces to listen to.

As it turned out, the Civic is an entirely different orchestra from what it was in my college days. Not that I’m putting down the principal conductors during that time, for they did the best they could under the circumstances. But Gordon Peters was principal percussionist of the CSO while he was music director, and Margaret Hillis also directed the CSO Chorus; regardless of your talent, conducting an orchestra is not something you can do part-time. As for poor Henry Mazer, he was listed as associate conductor of the CSO and had to be given something to do.

The new CSO administration under Henry Fogel has overseen a number of exciting changes, among them the splitting of Mazer’s old job into two full-time conducting positions that were filled by Michael Morgan and Kenneth Jean, both talented and eager young conductors who have rebuilt the Civic into an instrument worthy of their talents. Also, the arrival of the CSO’s first composer in residence, John Corigliano, has ensured that the Civic takes an active interest in new music, regularly performing new works on their concert programs and sight-reading new scores for composer competitions twice a year. And Civic concerts are now free, though tickets must be ordered in advance. All this has given the Civic an entirely new and enthusiastic audience that overflows Orchestra Hall every concert.

The April 26 concert was presented as the grand finale of New Music Chicago’s annual spring festival, the first time an orchestral program had been presented in that series. That alone ensured the importance of this concert, even though many of the pieces programmed were fairly derivative and uninteresting.

If I had a dollar for every time a composer in a preperformance interview made a new piece sound fascinating, and then that piece turned out to have very little to say, I would be rich. Only rarely does the opposite happen, and it is always a pleasant surprise. Mike Twomey, a violist in the Civic, had so little of substance to say in a preconcert talk about the process by which he transformed a piano ballade, Brahms’s Ballade in D Major op. 10 no. 2, into his orchestral piece Edges of Ballade that I thought the work would be abysmal. But it was one of the most substantial pieces on the program. It contains little originality, owing much to the Copland and William Schuman “patriotic” school of writing, with some Ives and Bartok thrown in for spice. But these elements are mixed skillfully, and the piece is well crafted and well orchestrated, demonstrating a clarity of direction and form. The ballade was so radically transformed as to be virtually undetectable–and that’s just fine. The trend among composers toward using literal quotes from well-known pieces within what they call their own music is disturbing, but if it is done, the more radically transformed the better.

Corigliano was represented by a work that demonstrates the worst qualities of this fad, Fantasia on an Ostinato, a piano work composed for recently deceased Chicago pianist Sheldon Shkolnik five years ago, here orchestrated. The piano version was heard in its entirety before the concert, the orchestral version within the concert. I was puzzled at Corigliano’s bragging to the audience that players of the New York Philharmonic did not recognize his use of the funeral march from the Beethoven Seventh Symphony until the climax, where it is shamelessly lifted note for note, for its emergence is so telegraphed from the first measure that you’d have to be tone-deaf not to catch it. (The same cliche was used in Corigliano’s birthday piece dedicated to Sir Georg Solti.) The composition worked better orchestrated than as a piano piece, but one hearing was more than enough.

Marilyn Shrude’s Passage of Years is representative of the “timbre only” school, another unfortunate and shallow trend in new music in which the emphasis is on slow-moving timbral shapes and shifts of color, with little attention to musical form or substance. The work’s title is apt, for though it lasts less than nine minutes, things move so slowly that the passage of time is definitely too long.

By far the most interesting piece on the program was by the Thai American composer Narongrit Dhamabutra. Dhamachakra: Sinfonia for Orchestra refers to the Theravada Buddhist wheel-and-spoke symbol representing the eight-fold path of right speech, right livelihood, right aspiration, right thinking, etc–the parts of which are interwoven in timbral counterpoint. The work has much to offer; it has many nuances and subtleties, far too many to judge its merit on a single hearing. The only effect I felt was excessive was the repeated sudden dynamic bursts that were like cheap scares in a B horror movie.

The world premiere last June of Lyric Opera composer in residence Lee Goldstein’s The Fan would have been safely tucked away as one of the less-than-distinguished moments in the company’s history, but Goldstein passed away recently, and an aria from the work was retrieved in memory of him. Of course the death of a young, aspiring composer is unfortunate, but Corigliano’s coming onstage and comparing Goldstein’s work and death to the work and death of Mozart was as morbid (his death had been noted in the program, contrary to what Corigliano said) as it was tasteless. The only positive thing about hearing Donizetti filtered through Goldstein again (Goldstein was also of the “lift a quote” school) was that this time there was a decent singer on hand–soprano Elizabeth Futral, who did a superb job singing the aria.

Rock star Frank Zappa–who was not in attendance–was represented by a 1970 chamber piece called Dupree’s Paradise, an aimless enterprise full of cheap effects and repetitious cliches. Ironically, this work sounded more like a student piece than those of the real students heard on the program.

The performances of these new scores by the Civic Orchestra were of a very high quality, particularly in the brass and woodwind passages. As in the CSO, the strings were the weakest sections of the orchestra, but their playing was of a much higher caliber than past incarnations of the orchestra I have heard. Conductor Michael Morgan showed considerable imagination and sense of detail in each piece. Sometimes a conductor’s job is like a lawyer’s–the job is to present the “case” of the composer as best you can, whatever you may happen to think of the music itself. Morgan is a master of this, and it’s not as easy as one might think (I have always found playing uninteresting music an intolerable experience).

The Civic’s playing on this program was impressive enough that I went to another Civic concert of more standard repertoire, the orchestra’s final concert of the season, also directed by Morgan. Orchestra Hall was again packed to the rafters (PR people tend to exaggerate these things, but this concert was better attended than the average CSO concert).

The first part of the program was taken up by the Beethoven Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral), which was given a fresh, airy reading by Morgan. His Beethoven is not stodgy or heavy-handed, and yet it’s packed with tension and drama–a good and rare balance of those elements. His phrasing is exquisite, and even though there were some ensembling problems from players who may not always have been able to keep up, Morgan didn’t hold back for them. That is how it should be. There are two basic tempo approaches when conducting a training orchestra: You can keep everything slow and get faster as performers can manage it, the problem being that the players get lazy and never fully get up to tempo. Or, you can take it at more or less the clip you envision it, stopping or slowing down only to work through major problems that players cannot work through themselves–which is much the way the CSO rehearses. Obviously the second approach is preferable, and that’s the approach Morgan takes. Yes, there are some grisly moments when he tries to get them to play very softly, and the second and last movements of the Beethoven suffered greatly. If Morgan had let them play louder, the sound would have been cleaner–but what kind of habits would he be teaching the players? (And besides, the CSO strings don’t always play well; they squeaked like mice two days earlier in a passage or two of Haydn’s Nelson Mass.)

The second half of the program was made up of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and the adagio from his unfinished Tenth Symphony performed as a single unit. They worked better as a unit than I would have suspected, although the adagio might have served better as a prelude than a postlude. Still, it was the last music Mahler penned, so perhaps chronology was the major consideration.

Donnie Ray Albert, whose voice is not at all suited to Mahler, was the baritone for the Kindertotenlieder. He kept his sound and expression at the same monotone level throughout, with only the slightest variation of emotion. The orchestra played well, though at the work’s conclusion the strings sounded very scratchy.

The adagio too was marred by the various weaknesses of the strings, who found it very difficult to sustain the long phrases Morgan demanded of them. The tempo was definitely too slow for the Civic, but in struggling to achieve it the players learn much more than they would if Morgan sped it up to cover their weaknesses. That is what an effective training orchestra is all about.