at Orchestra Hall

January 5 and 12

It is all too sad but true that symphonic concerts are often given with little involvement on either side of the podium. On one side are the musicians, who are usually going through a score that they have done more times than most of them care to remember, often with a conductor who knows less about the piece than many of them do. On the other side of the podium is a public that by and large gauges its involvement by how well it knows what is being played. If a familiar work is as tiresome to orchestra members as it is welcome to audience members, what’s the solution? The ideal symphony program would present pieces that engage the performers and the public equally–a mix of lighter entertainment for the public and sublime masterpieces for the musicians.

No one understands this better than Erich Leinsdorf. Now 77 years old, with a career that is as distinguished as any conductor could hope for, he refuses to rest on his laurels. There are conductors many years his junior who have become mere imitations of what they once were, repeating their gestures and repertoire, catering to a rapidly aging symphonic public by trying to stop the clock.

Most conductors with established international careers prepare a handful of programs each year and then take those programs wherever they are invited to guest conduct. If the Chicago Symphony wants Maestro X, then Maestro X comes with program A or B. But Leinsdorf still challenges himself–he actually asks orchestras to send him their “want lists,” pieces they want to perform that are not being picked up by their music directors or guest conductors.

The results are especially refreshing here, where, despite our magnificent orchestra, programming is far from an art form. Here programs too often consist of what the orchestra is scheduled to record or go on tour with, and then the blanks are filled in–even if the result is like eating sweet-and-sour pork, enchiladas, and fettuccine Alfredo in the same meal.

Leinsdorf opened the CSO’s New Year with two masterfully crafted programs. The first week consisted of the Bartok Second Piano Concerto, sandwiched between two Stravinsky works–the Octet for Wind Instruments and the symphonic poem Song of the Nightingale–and topped off with a lighter Tchaikovsky work, the Capriccio italien. The second week paired Leinsdorf’s own excerpts from the Stravinsky ballet The Fairy’s Kiss with the Mozart Posthorn Serenade (K. 320, in D Major). However strange these programs may look on paper, their overall flow worked exquisitely for both sides of the podium.

Few composers in the history of music have changed their basic attitudes about music more often or completely than Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky saw his early works as the products of inspiration, seeing himself as merely the vessel through which his works passed. He amended that view after embracing the 12-tone serial techniques of Anton Webern during the 50s and 60s, and began claiming that music was an abstract art form programmed completely by the composer. His octet, which came to Stravinsky in a dream, belongs to the earlier period (1922).

Although one could easily argue that a symphony concert is not the place for chamber music, the octet is such a large-scale piece in terms of form that it fits in rather well. All eight of the players entered the hall as soloists, which they were. In fact, this use of CSO soloists is far more aesthetically satisfying than having an individual player hack away at a Vivaldi concerto. CSO players will shine brilliantly within a chamber ensemble, provided they are given solid direction–which Leinsdorf gave in abundance. Although I would have preferred a bit quieter second movement, Leinsdorf’s balancing of the instruments and his sense of phrasing and tight ensembling was a joy. The piece often comes across as brash, but Leinsdorf was able to let much subtlety through.

The Bartok Piano Concerto was anything but subtle. Leinsdorf has often joked about his dislike of soloists, and has generally declined to accompany them in showpieces. This concerto requires the pianist and orchestra to function on equal terms–but the Soviet-born Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman was way out of his league. In the right hands, this is one of the most lyrical yet driving masterpieces of modern music. Maurizio Pollini, for instance, who performed and recorded the work here with Claudio Abbado about ten years ago, made the torturously virtuosic work sing as if it were Schubert. Bronfman pounded away, at one point so hard that he broke a piano string (the zitherlike sound that resulted was one of the few points of interest in this performance). He envisioned Bartok’s music as little more than chaotic percussive hacking, with little sense of phrasing, expression, or dynamic contrast.

In fairness to Bronfman, he had little help from Leinsdorf, who was for some reason simply unable to keep things together in the orchestra. From the first downbeat, entrances were ragged, and orchestral balances constantly drowned out the soloist (a Leinsdorf editorial, perhaps?) while the pulse (and therefore precise rhythm) was lifeless and dragging. Things came to life a little during the orchestral introduction to the second movement, which began with some finely balanced and hushed string sound, but as the piano began to pound out its role in the dialogue, that effect was lost.

Song of the Nightingale is identified with the CSO, due to a magnificent recording that the orchestra made in the early 60s with Fritz Reiner. It remains one of the best records that Reiner made with the CSO, and is finding a new generation of listeners on compact disc. Yet Leinsdorf’s interpretation compares very favorably. The work, which is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, uses orchestral effects and individual instruments to cleverly juxtapose a real and a mechanical nightingale in the court of the emperor of China. Particularly outstanding soloists were flutist Donald Peck and violinist Samuel Magad.

Anyone who thought that Capriccio italien was merely a pops piece would have been quite surprised at the deliberate reading that Leinsdorf gave it. The orchestral color was dazzling, the mood fanciful, the rhythms tight. It would be hard to imagine a more dignified or spectacular reading of the piece.

Leinsdorf returned to another Stravinsky score the following week–a work also based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen (“The Snow Queen”)–the ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Showing typical resourcefulness, Leinsdorf pulled his own excerpts from the ballet rather than perform the “Divertimento” suite that Stravinsky compiled. Leinsdorf’s excerpts gave a much clearer sense of the ballet’s structure and retained virtually the complete climax.

The work is actually Stravinsky’s tribute to the music of Tchaikovsky. My own familiarity with the work dates from a CBS recording that Stravinsky himself conducted some 25 years ago–a very dry account that convinced me that the work was not very interesting. Leinsdorf, however, brought out the charm and depth of the score. He revealed this neglected masterpiece in an array of glorious orchestral colors and moods, never losing sight of the fact that the score is a modern look at a Romantic master. The dialogues between strings and winds were carefully shaped, the ensembling was tight, and the dynamic contrast was very pronounced. Only some poor horn playing marred the effect. This performance, incredibly enough, was the first by the CSO of music from the complete ballet.

Mozart brought to perfection the serenade form, a genre that developed as 18th-century party music. Serenades were made up of several movements meant to correspond to various activities–eating, drinking, dancing–and were repeated and spread out over the course of the evening. Judging from the scope and size of Mozart’s Serenade in D Major, the party was a long one and the host a generous fellow.

There is a simple way to tell which of Mozart’s serenades were meant to be played at an indoor party and which were meant for an outdoor party. Serenades using strings were for indoors; serenades using winds, whose sound carried much better, were for outdoors. Here we have a massive serenade that mixes winds and strings, and in the final minuet introduces the simple, circular, buglelike post horn, an instrument that was once used to signal mail deliveries. As played by Adolph Herseth, it made a dramatic and spectacular entrance.

Leinsdorf’s approach, predictably for a man of his age and training, was unabashedly Romantic; he used a very large orchestra and the slow tempi characteristic of the old Vienna school of Mozart playing. Such an approach sounds stodgy and unenlightened in this era of great discoveries concerning the Classical era, but it was interesting to hear how much Mozart can sound like Brahms–especially in the slow movement–if that’s the filter he’s viewed through. The main disadvantage of Leinsdorf’s approach was that using so many string players not only made for flabby lines, but overpowered many of the wind textures, blurring the original instrumental balances that Mozart so carefully crafted.

Leinsdorf returns to Chicago next month for two more weeks of concerts with the CSO. From the look of those programs, he will again strike a perfect program balance. By challenging himself, he manages to challenge all of us.

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