Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, March 12 and 19

By Lee Sandlin

Modernist music is about a century old, and nobody knows yet what to do with it. Its proponents used to push it on audiences with millennial fervor: they would tell you, quite seriously, that its shrieking dissonances and insane chromatic harmonies were the logical end point of musical history, and if you didn’t like it you were standing in the way of liberation. Nobody talks like that anymore. Modernism these days is just one more face in the fractious classical mob, jostling around with neomedievalism and neominimalism and neo-Romanticism and God knows what else. Yet composers are starting to take an interest in it again for its novelty value, as a counterreaction to the current trend toward conservative tonality. That’s how far out of the mainstream it’s got: it’s actually becoming a fashionable alternative taste.

I was never much of a fan of modernism and certainly not of its ideology. But after hearing a lot of the new stuff I have to say I miss the old doctrinaire passion. The new works–such as John Adams’s recent large-scale atonal pieces Harmonielehre and the Chamber Symphony–sound like they were written mostly for laughs, as a kind of retro-kitsch nostalgia; they make modernism out to be the classical equivalent of Lava lamps or platform shoes. Only a few contemporary composers are investigating the modernist legacy with any seriousness–seeing if any of its harshest effects can be made to work with an audience, trying to discover whether any of its ferociously cerebral styles can be assimilated into some ongoing tradition.

One of the best of these new modernists is Oliver Knussen, who was just in town for a two-week residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He isn’t well-known in America, but he’s been collecting a bit of a rep in Europe–as a composer, for his intriguing, audience-friendly experiments in the modernist idiom, and as a conductor, for his freshly conceived concerts and recordings devoted to the 20th-century repertoire. The two-concert series he gave with the CSO was a kind of panorama of this musical landscape: he programmed three works by Stravinsky, two by Mussorgsky, one by contemporary American composer Robert Lieberson, and three of his own. By my count, eight of the nine were CSO premieres; you can ordinarily go through a whole season at Orchestra Hall without hearing that many new pieces. It was a perfect introduction to the wide-ranging quirkiness of his taste.

The star of the first concert was Stravinsky. He’s become something of a model among new composers for his idiosyncratic response to the chaos of modern music. (The modernists used to despise him for his lack of ideological purity.) Over the course of his long career he ransacked just about every conceivable modern style to create works that ranged from the austere neo-Baroque of The Rake’s Progress to the full-tilt atonal estrangement of Requiem Canticles–and yet they all came out sounding just like Stravinsky. Knussen is a passionate and exhaustively knowledgeable fan of this work–he’s recorded two whole CDs of Stravinsky’s most esoteric style hopping: the neo-Romantic phase (The Fairy’s Kiss) and the late experiments with serialism (The Flood). For the CSO he picked out one standard work, The Firebird Suite, and two pieces so obscure the CSO had never played them before: the Canon on a Russian Popular Tune and The Faun and the Shepherdess.

The Canon is trivial–it’s a high-spirited fanfare that clocks in at around 54 seconds. Knussen used it mostly to establish an unsolemn mood, conducting it with fiery urgency, then gravely motioning the orchestra to take a bow while he went striding offstage as though he’d just finished a four-movement symphony. (It got a nice laugh.) But The Faun and the Shepherdess is more substantial. It’s a setting of a Pushkin fairy tale in verse, with a liltingly melodic vocal line and a lush and imaginative orchestration. It’s quite lovely, but Knussen seemed to think it was more than that; he conducted it with such force he appeared to be putting it forward as a major rediscovery.

He ran into trouble making this case because the performance was torpedoed by the soloist, Lucy Shelton. She has an exquisite voice, but not a strong one; it’s probably heard to better advantage in the studio–or, at any rate, someplace more sonically forgiving than Orchestra Hall. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she must have been standing in an acoustical dead spot on the stage; the soloist in the second concert, Rosemary Hardy, stood in roughly the same place and also had difficulty making herself heard. But Shelton was completely swamped. For long stretches she was inaudible, and all that the audience got were the bold flourishes and curlicues of the orchestral ornamentation.

Still, you could tell why Knussen likes the piece so much. It’s one of Stravinsky’s earliest works, but it shows in embryo his gift for assimilating other people’s styles without being victimized by them. He composed it when he was still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and wholly under the spell of the Russian Romantics, and yet it’s still got that familiar Stravinskyan freshness and clarity, that flair for the dramatic gesture, that brilliant surface and freedom from sentimentality that would later flower into masterworks like The Rite of Spring and the Symphony of Psalms. What it doesn’t have is a lot of inherent worth. At the end I was still unpersuaded that I’d heard anything more than an apprentice piece by somebody who would later become a great composer, and it made me think that Knussen’s hero worship was compromising his taste.

That also turned out to be the big problem with the work that should have brought the concert to a triumphant close, The Firebird Suite. Not that it’s overrated. It’s just as dazzling as it ever was; Stravinsky effortlessly fuses old Russian folk material with the most fashionably advanced ideas in an ovation of orchestral color. The problem is that it was written for the ballet, not the concert hall, and played as a straight orchestra piece it can easily come off as monotonous and oversimple. Most conductors push at the tempi to give it a more varied feel–but Knussen played it throughout with reverent exactitude, refusing to tamper with the least-inflected passages. It wasn’t a total flop: the fanciful wit of the score did come through, as did its delicate lyricism. But there was no forward momentum, and the slow passages were intolerably stagnant.

With all the Stravinsky pieces, Knussen ignored the inner dynamics of the score–which is where conductors usually focus–and instead concentrated on the surface shimmer of fantasy. This makes for a fresh sound, but ultimately it’s not the most useful approach to Stravinsky; his real dramas are concealed within his dizzying craftsmanship, like a Shakespearean tragedy encoded as a chess problem. Yet it turned out to be brilliantly right for the other works on the program, Lieberson’s orchestra piece Drala and Knussen’s own Horn Concerto. Drala is a work heavy with overtones of Eastern religiosity (the title is a Tibetan word meaning something like “transcending your enemy”), but Knussen conducted it as a swirl of gorgeous effects, from the glittering, chiming cascades of its opening movement to a dark inner passage of contending strings to a thunderous coda. It might have been spiritually shallow, but it went over magnificently; after the concert this was the piece I heard people talking about in the lobby, mostly in tones of surprised delight–which isn’t bad for an obscure modern composer going up against Stravinsky.

Knussen’s concerto impressed me just as much. Its strange and moody horn solos seem to echo through a dreamlike forest of novel orchestral textures, picking up odd resonances from the woodwinds and setting off twangling flurries from the strings. Knussen has already recorded a good performance of this piece with Barry Tuckwell and the London Sinfonietta, but his performance with the CSO showed what a difference a world-class orchestra can make to such a delicate work. Where the Sinfonietta recording is nervous and peculiar, the CSO was lyrical and magical; where the Sinfonietta is slow and solemn, the CSO was gravely majestic. I suppose the horn soloist, Gail Williams, isn’t quite in the same league as the great Tuckwell, but otherwise it was wonderfully achieved–it and Drala are among the best things I’ve heard at Orchestra Hall this season.

The second concert looked like it was going to be duller, because it was dominated by Mussorgsky’s worn-out concert standards, A Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. But Knussen livened things up with a perverse surprise: he didn’t use the orchestral arrangements everybody knows, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Bald Mountain and Ravel’s Pictures; instead he resurrected the forgotten modern settings by Leopold Stokowski. (The CSO has never played these before either.) Their effect was very much like The Faun and the Shepherdess–a rediscovery that wasn’t worth making. The familiar arrangements are just fine: Rimsky-Korsakov brought the perfect fairy-tale wildness to Bald Mountain, and Ravel’s renowned sureness of taste was never better exemplified than by his playful version of the Pictures. What Stokowski came up with was schmaltz and bombast, with an edge of modernist cacophony: overblown strings, lurid horns, vulgar percussion. Stokowski used his version of Bald Mountain on the sound track of Disney’s Fantasia, and that remains its ideal, if not its only tolerable, setting.

Painful as this was, Knussen made up for it with his two works: extended excerpts from the children’s operas he wrote in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and The Way to Castle Yonder. These were original, beautiful, and fascinating. They also managed to make almost everything that had been flying around randomly in these concerts come together: Knussen’s love of fantasy, his wayward taste, his openness to all sorts of strange influences, from the avant-garde to Disney, and most of all his fascination with the dramatic surfaces of modernist sound.

Where the Wild Things Are runs about 40 minutes in a full performance, and the CSO played roughly half the score–more than enough to demonstrate its rich colors and exuberant inventiveness. In the libretto, as in Sendak’s classic book, our young hero Max is exiled to his room because of a tantrum and journeys in his imagination to the land of the Wild Things, where he’s crowned king and commands his subjects to perform a furious dance; and then, his anger spent, he returns to the mundane world to find his dinner waiting. Knussen and Sendak were careful not to tamper with this primal simplicity: we do find out a little more about Max’s tantrum (he tells off his mother and starts hitting the vacuum cleaner), and Sendak also devised a nonsense language for the Wild Things to speak–which he describes as “a childish, naughty, upside-down pidgin Yiddish.” (The CSO didn’t perform these portions of the score, but they can be heard on the Arabesque CD.) Mainly what the opera adds is Knussen’s music, a farrago of furious crescendos, strange off-balance harmonies, surges of unstable energy, and alluringly weird fits of lyrical beauty–all of it pitched somewhere between a cartoon carnival and a nightmare.

It works, because the sheer freakiness of modernist music catches perfectly the tumult and dissonance of a child’s tantrum. The score sounds like a storm erupting in Max’s mind, where all sorts of half-formed emotions and misremembered ideas are furiously jumbled together. Silly jingles thunder with inexplicable drama; mysterious adagios break off the moment the attention wanders. Knussen was quite right to ignore the bland cliches of “children’s music” and instead write harmonically complex music in disorderly profusion, to be played by a full orchestra at peak volume–the only way to do justice to the raw psychic power involved. The result is a wonderful sound image of the way a child can be overpowered by his own imagination, which seems to draw on reserves of mysterious energy that are much stronger and deeper than his rational self.

But it’s a fragile achievement–as is proved by Knussen and Sendak’s second, much less successful collaboration, The Way to Castle Yonder. Partly the fault is the source, Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!, which is more subtle and elusive than Wild Things; it never even discloses its true subject, which is death and the afterlife. The mysterious journey taken by our heroine Jennie (modeled on Sendak’s beloved dog, who was dying of cancer when he wrote it) is told in a curious tone of wistful sentimentality suffused with dark surrealism. Knussen’s score catches the darkness perfectly; the excerpts he played with the CSO were mysterious, beautiful, and thoroughly sinister. But what it misses is the daylight world of ordinary sorrows and consolations; the music is coldly alluring but lacks any countervailing sense of normality. That’s the same flaw that partially undermines Wild Things: it’s so relentlessly weird and chaotic and so emotionally icy that in the end you think Max might not so much need his mother’s forgiveness as he does a strong dose of antipsychotic medication.

But then modernist music always did seem to be wrong for describing normal human emotions. Its masterworks, from Arnold Schoenberg’s VerklŠrte Nacht onward, have always sounded like the expression of mental disturbance. You weren’t supposed to say so in the old days–you’d inevitably be called a philistine or worse. But now that modernism is so far out of favor, maybe we can appreciate what it has always done superbly: explore irrational states where the ordinary rules don’t apply. Of course it’s an awfully big comedown; the dominant power in music has become a minor collection of tricks used to evoke a child’s tantrum. But new composers always make peculiar, condescending, and distorted adaptations of the great music of the past–that’s one of the signs of a living tradition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Oliver Knussen photo by Nigel Luckhurst.