at the Arts Club of Chicago

February 6

When a professor of distinction reaches a certain age his students gather to eulogize his achievements. Quite often they contribute essays that are published along with papers by the professor in a volume called a festschrift. The musical equivalent of a festschrift took place earlier this month, an effusive tribute to Northwestern University’s M. William Karlins and Alan Stout, and Roosevelt University’s Robert Lombardo, all of whom turn 60 this year.

Looking back on the careers of these men, one might wonder why none of them achieved international or even national prominence. In the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Stout and Karlins have only perfunctory entries; Lombardo has yet to be listed.

The lack of wide recognition–and the relatively meager commissions–is indicative of the vagaries of music politics. Obviously accomplished and hardworking, all three composers have spent almost half their lives at their universities–far from the attention of the New York establishment and the media. Had they been based in an east-coast ivory tower, their music might be better known (though it must be said that the University of Chicago’s Ralph Shapey, a former New Yorker, has always received peer recognition and press coverage). It hasn’t helped that for a long time Chicago-area composers seemed shy about promoting themselves or each other. Or that the city’s leading concert presenters–the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and Chamber Music Chicago–have hardly been avid boosters of Stout, Karlins, or Lombardo. Of course, it’s possible that none of them has written works that deserve a place in the contemporary-music repertoire, but I doubt it, especially after I heard some of the pieces on the birthday program.

The salute at the Arts Club was organized by the new-music collective Cube and “friends,” some of whom are former students or colleagues of the honorees. In a show of solidarity, a sizable contingent of area musicians packed the hall. Each of the three composers was represented by at least two works, and, in the spirit of a festschrift, each received a birthday gift in the form of a deliberately imitative piece written by a former prize pupil.

The rediscovery of the evening was Karlins. I had liked the overarching lyricism of some of his music before, but now I admire his craftsmanship as well. And All Our World Is Dew, Karlins’s second woodwind quintet, written in 1977, is a neatly constructed and heartfelt memorial to his godson who died young. The music begins excitedly, with the winds twittering contentiously as if taunting fate. The mood changes swiftly to gloom in the capriccio, and the winds wail like a Greek chorus only to be stopped by a solo horn. Joined by the flute, the horn then begins a calm and meditative passage. The music ends quietly, hauntingly–as if accepting fate. Though one can detect influences of Messiaen in the way the winds are cast, the quintet is an original in the genuine emotional response it evokes.

Karlins’s Introduction and Passacaglia, a 1990 commission by sax players Paul Bro and William Street, is a clever update of a baroque form. A pair of saxes–alto and tenor–begin a stately pas de deux, egged on by a mischievous piano, whose strings are plucked to sound the passacaglia theme. In the six variations that follow, the saxes (and occasionally the piano) challenge each other as they do virtuosic tricks topped off by a fast finale. Bro and Street, who were accompanied by Philip Morehead at the piano, should be mighty pleased with this addition to their repertoire.

The homage to Karlins came from Janice Misurell-Mitchell. Her short Echoes of Obiter Dictum makes references to her teacher’s 1965 Variations on “Obiter Dictum” whose “rhapsodic quality and oppositions of energy and calm” she says she’s always admired. A gifted writer for the flute and guitar, Misurell-Mitchell had this duo (Jeffrey Kust on guitar and herself playing flute) breathily vying for attention in a roundelay that was a delightful, fitting tribute.

Stout was represented by his Sonata for Cello and Piano and its companion Music for Oboe and Piano, both written in the mid-60s as studies for his important second symphony. (The reclusive Stout, who did not attend the concert, is rumored to be unhappy with much of his work from the 80s, which probably explains why he didn’t allow any recent compositions to be unveiled.) Once upon a time Stout was considered an innovator whose meticulous style and almost patrician outlook marked him as a promising heir to Elliott Carter. The program notes his “use of large chromatic tone clusters” and his “relaxed application of the 12-tone system,” yet his virtues now seem terribly outdated. His sonata, performed by cellist Betsy Start and pianist Morehead, presents the same desolate, rage-filled, agitated soundscape that preoccupied many postwar composers here and in Europe. It’s written largely in the international style, which is as sterile and monolithic as the skyscrapers of the 50s and 60s. Music for Oboe and Piano evokes a similar atmosphere, with the oboe a solitary voyager bemoaning its misfortune, its peregrinations at times interrupted by a rude piano. Finally it launches into a shrill tirade that allows it to have the last word. The piece contains some startling gestures and may work on an intellectual level, but overall it’s too angry and pretentious to have an emotional impact. The performance didn’t help: the pianist (Morehead) and the oboist (Patricia Morehead) had to stop and restart after they got out of sync.

I don’t know what to make of Sheldon Atovsky’s Veils, Gauze, Gasps. In his program note the well-known local new-music advocate says that structural and rhythmic elements of his piece are derived from Stout’s name. If so, the result is dazzlingly bizarre and irreverent. The piano chimes like a broken bell, the oboe sounds demented, the flutes are like a pair of fluttery debutantes. Then all of a sudden the instruments break into pandemonium like a bunch of fire alarms gone haywire. (Gasps, perhaps?) Atovsky calls Stout “the second most curious enigma of this century.” Since few of us are privy to the professor’s personal life, we can only take Atovsky’s piece as an inside joke.

Lombardo is the free spirit among the three, the least constrained by conventions and academic rules. He helped popularize gamelan music in Chicago and has been involved in other venturesome collaborations, including forays into film. I wouldn’t argue that he’s a first-rate or profound composer, but he certainly belongs in the company of his Northwestern University peers. His eclecticism–which may be one reason he’s been ignored by the establishment–shows a composer constantly intrigued by his environment and inspired by tactile impulses. And besides, the man loves to write music: his three pieces on the program are all less than three years old.

Both Contrasti a due and Sudden Departures betray an infatuation with Sicily, the land of Lombardo’s ancestors. In Contrasti a due the mandolin embarks on a soliloquy with the smoothness of a lounge lizard, and the marimba joins it like a campadre. Whatever tall tale they’re spinning is meant to be blatantly sentimental to the end. Dimitris Marinos on the mandolin and Edward Poremba on the marimba were impressive in their command of technique. In a similar vein, Sudden Departures has a guitar and a flute engage in an Italianate flirtation dance that’s enlivened by a round of Weill-esque tango steps. Caroline Pittman and Jeffrey Kust made a lively pair. They also starred, along with Pat Morehead on English horn, in a brief teaser by John Austin titled Piccolo serenata. Like Lombardo’s Siciliana, it tugs at the heartstrings, albeit half seriously.

Lombardo’s piece de resistance, however, was Overture, Aria and Tango, aptly subtitled “an entertainment for soprano, solo cello, and five instruments.” Using a postmodern text by Lombardo’s wife, Kathleen, it features a haughty yet vulnerable diva giving orders that are really names of Italian culinary delights. The equation between opera and food–an association often made by rotund singers–may be an obvious one, but the Lombardos must be the first to write a mirthful aria praising and mocking both. The tango, in which the recipe for a red sauce is recited impetuously, shows Kathleen to be a seasoned cook and Robert an astute scorer for the voice in the mold of Menotti and Weill. The piece was spiced up by soprano Carole Loverde, who had requested it in the first place. Looking imperious and conspiratorially playful in turn, she tossed off these tricky non sequiturs with relish, deliciously garnishing each syllable. Her delivery made the Lombardos’ concoction as frothy and refreshing as an after-dinner cappuccino.


at Orchestra Hall

February 22

Lukas Foss, the three professors’ senior by a decade, is arguably the most versatile and open-minded American musician ever–after Leonard Bernstein. An educator, author, and conductor, Foss is well-known for having turned the podiums of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Milwaukee Symphony into pulpits from which to champion contemporary music as well as neglected works by old masters. As a composer, he’s been quite prolific, compiling a body of work that demonstrates a keen knowledge of musical languages from Scarlatti’s to Cage’s. His latest composition, a centennial commission for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, debuted last week.

Titled Symphony of Sorrows, the half-hour work is Foss’s third symphony. (His first was written in 1945 and premiered by Fritz Reiner.) As the programmatic label suggests, it’s a rather grandiose meditation on man’s fate in this century. To be even more helpful, Foss supplied each movement with a telling title as well: “Of Strife and Struggle,” “Elegy for Anne Frank,” “Wasteland,” and “Prayer.” Clearly the music is meant to be from the heart. The Berlin-born Foss (nee Fuchs) fled with his family to Paris in 1933, then to this country four years later.

Yet what I heard on Saturday night, a performance conducted by Zubin Mehta, worked only in spurts. The first movement begins with eerie primordial sounds from the strings, punctuated by the brasses making tentative outbursts, crying out to be heard. After a quiet interlude, the brasses and bells burst into cacophony (this section, according to Foss, is an inversion of the opening). Then suddenly the organ puts a stop to the clamor. OK, I suppose all this is a fairly accurate depiction of “strife and struggle.” The eulogy to Anne Frank, reworked from a chamber version composed for the 60th anniversary of her birth, is just that. The piano plays a sweet nursery melody, and slowly ominous sounds from the orchestra threaten to drown it, culminating in a Nazi march. The music stops abruptly, and the opening sad cradle song returns. Overall, this movement resembles the famous beer-garden scene in Cabaret. The third movement, also based on an earlier work, was inspired by images from T. S. Eliot’s poem. Brooding and doleful, it exudes quiet desperation, but exclamations from the timpani put an end to the gloom. The serene euphonious finale has the lyrical uplift of Barber’s Adagio; hope at last has dispelled sorrow.

Foss’s symphony invites comparison with John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1, a CSO commission premiered two seasons ago. Like Corigliano, Foss uses an amalgam of musical styles–from atonal and chromatic to tonal and diatonic–to create sound effects that “tell” an autobiographical narrative. Yet, unlike Corigliano’s symphony, which memorializes AIDS victims, his doesn’t pack quite as strong an emotional wallop. Its four tone poems don’t quite hang together–they don’t resonate with each other, and the emotional force barely registers. As a result, the symphony has the vividness of faded mementos from a distant past.

The other two works on the program were Brahms’s Third Symphony and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite no. 2. Hearing the brilliant and extroverted performances by the CSO, I marveled again at the tight and seamless orchestration of both masterpieces. They have an emotional and intellectual heft that’s missing in most modern-day symphonies, and Foss might have done better paying heed to these 19th-century examples.