at Orchestra Hall

March 17 and 28 and April 6 and 13

At a CSO press luncheon recently, conductor Leonard Slatkin was lamenting the fact that no conductor in recent memory has matched the tireless efforts Serge Koussevitzky once made in championing new music. “For that matter, Leopold Stokowski did his bit as well,” someone chimed in. “As did Fritz Reiner and Jean Martinon,” another added. And for that matter, it would seem, almost any 20th-century maestro now deceased.

This is not to take anything away from Koussevitzky, who rightfully occupies a special place as godfather of many important 20th-century scores, most of which would probably never have been written if he hadn’t commissioned them. But most of today’s maestro (to say nothing of recording companies and orchestra managers) are far more interested in serving up the Tchaikovsky Sixth for the hundredth time than in learning a new score–even though it’s probably accurate to say that no really new interpretive ideas about the Sixth have surfaced since Toscanini.

Two recent visitors to the CSO who are clear exceptions to this rule are Slatkin, fast becoming Bernstein’s heir apparent as America’s official maestro, and Michael Tilson Thomas. Each conducted two weeks of programs. Slatkin performed the Bartok symphonic poem Kossuth his first week, as well as the Chicago premiere of the Stanley Wolfe violin concerto (with soloist Mark Peskanov), Bartok’s orchestration of Romanian Folkdances, and the Janacek Sinfonietta. His second week opened with the Haydn Symphony no. 66, continued with the world premiere of Jacob Druckman’s Brangle, and concluded with the Brahms Serenade no. 1 in D, op. 11. Tilson Thomas’s first week included two Haydn works, Symphony no. 81 and the Horn Concerto in D Major (with CSO principal Dale Clevenger as soloist), and concluded with the Ives Symphony no. 1. His second week featured Emanuel Ax playing the Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2 and the monumental Ives Symphony no. 4; the Ives was preceded by a Chicago Symphony Chorus performance of five organ-accompanied hymns Ives used in this symphony.

Two seasons ago the CSO began a five-year in-depth exploration of the orchestral works of Haydn and Bartok. On the surface this seemed inspired, given these composers’ genius and originality, the neglect accorded so much of their work, and the CSO’s large resources. Although some performances from the Bartok cycle have been incredible (all of them Solti-led works that he had previously conducted here), the Haydn cycle has been–thus far, for the most part–a sad experiment.

Not that the pieces are at fault; what has been lacking are conductors with some basic understanding of what Haydn and 18th-century music are all about. At least as far as their recent performances are concerned, Slatkin and Tilson Thomas are typical offenders. Slatkin’s rendering of the Haydn Symphony no. 66 in B-flat Major (a CSO premiere) was flabby and lifeless, and the winds were swimming in an abundance of large, undefined string sound. Sloppy ensembling and slow tempi abounded. Tilson Thomas’s account of the Haydn Symphony no. 81 in G Major (also a CSO premiere) descended even further into the depths: section homogeneity was so poor that the sound often produced the effect of a Gabrieli antiphon, the violins usually echoing the cellos. Was this avant-garde Haydn? If so, it also dictates that repeated sections all sound exactly the same, with no dynamic contrast whatsoever.

The only bright spot in the Haydn pieces was the smooth, mellow sound of Dale Clevenger in his reading of the Haydn Horn Concerto in D Major. Tilson Thomas’s lame accompaniment was replete with the problems mentioned above, including an adagio so slow it gave us the unexpected sideshow of Clevenger holding his breath almost as long as Matt Biondi. But Clevenger’s artistry–minus a handful of small blunders–rescued the performance from the depths it might otherwise have plumbed.

In light of all the recent revolutionary scholarship into 18th-century music in general and Haydn in particular, a pressing question emerges: why are two of America’s brightest young conductors totally unaware of it? An even more pressing question is why CSO management continues to seek out such hack Haydn conductors when they could bring in, probably for less money, any number of people–Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Anthony Newman, to name just a few–who could do a far more stylish job. Or if one wants to take a more contemporary approach, bring in a George Cleve or someone who can keep sections together, properly balanced, and perhaps even serve up some imagination with the music.

Incredibly, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, both Slatkin and Tilson Thomas also had tremendous problems interpreting Brahms. This is odd, for both men have achieved an effective sound in other Brahms works I’ve heard them perform.

The Slatkin account of the seldom-performed Brahms Serenade no. 1 was so overdone it became unbearably boring. The string sound was again flabby, and so full as to completely overwhelm everything else–even the work’s opening horn theme. (That’s a really bizarre switch, when strings are drowning out CSO brass players.) The work’s climactic fugue was a study in poor balances and scrappy string ensembling, especially in the violin sections. Granted, this is not one of Brahms’s more interesting works, but to hear it performed so carelessly does not help to make a convincing case for it.

Tilson Thomas managed to be even more excessive in his reading of Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2, featuring Emanuel Ax as soloist. Under normal circumstances, Ax is one of the most virtuosic, poetic pianists one could ever hope to hear. These were not normal circumstances, however. Ax introduced the piece poetically enough (against an effective solo horn statement of the work’s main theme), but by the time the orchestra came in, with its harsh wind and string entrances, any refinement was thrown out the window. Suddenly Ax, one of the concert circuit’s most technically precise pianists, was missing notes and beginning to lose any sense of freedom. His concentration seemed divided between literally counting out entrances and dialogues so that he and the orchestra wouldn’t lose touch completely, and turning to the orchestra with his finger to his mouth, signaling them to hold back dynamically.

Unfortunately, Tilson Thomas didn’t have the faintest idea of what was going on in this brilliant concerto–dynamically, in terms of balance, even structurally. His sound was consistently harsh and undefined, with no sense of dialogue with Ax. Apparently Tilson Thomas sees the work as very trite, for that is exactly how it came off; it is a rare conductor indeed who can take a deep and beautiful masterpiece and turn it into something shallow and ugly. Ax deserves better, as does Brahms.

The two Slatkin weeks each contained a new work, the first a violin concerto composed for Mark Peskanov by Juilliard professor Stanley Wolfe. I admire Peskanov for wanting his Chicago debut to be also a Chicago premiere, but the Wolfe concerto is so riddled with Romantic cliches that it could have been the score for a B movie some 40 or 50 years ago. Jascha Heifetz used to sometimes commission similarly shallow works, using them to showcase his large, beautiful sound–a sound unfortunately quite lacking in young Peskanov. This piece is representative of current CSO management’s occasional shortsightedness as to what constitutes a “new” work; composers such as Wolfe and George Lloyd may be living, but they are not, in any stylistic sense, writing new music.

The other new work Slatkin conducted, Brangle, was a world premiere and CSO commission composed by American Jacob Druckman. The title comes from an obsolete word meaning a jittering, violent dance; Druckman explores the concept across three movements. The first, “Macho,” was inspired by an experience the composer had at Tanglewood, back in the days of segregated dorms; during a drinking party, a Turkish student taught the men a folk dance where everyone lined up according to height and leaned into the person next to him to form a shuffling circle. That masculine, rough dance is evoked in the ferocity of the music, which after a brass prelude begins slowly, speeding up to a crashing climax complete with harp, various percussion, and sleigh bells, and a brass “wah-wah” worthy of Duke Ellington, all of which is broken off by the winds. The work’s second movement, “Languorous,” emphasizes Latin and American rhythms, with a dialogue that pits harp and strings against timpani and glockenspiel, building to a samba rhythm with string glissandi. The work’s conclusion, “Driven,” contrasts dotted trumpet rhythms with pulsating high strings. Overall the work is enormously effective, with interesting musical material treated in imaginative ways. The score is also accessible, rhythmic and yet complex in its intervals. Slatkin and the CSO gave the work a first-rate reading, and it is by far the most effective, promising CSO commission in recent memory.

Both the young and mature Bartok and Ives were represented in these concerts, and the comparisons of early and late and of the two conductors were enormously interesting. Slatkin conducted the two Bartok works, and Tilson Thomas the two Ives.

Bartok’s symphonic poem Kossuth was the young Hungarian composer’s enthusiastic response to his first hearing of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Like Zarathustra (and also Ein Heldenleben), the music bursts forth in a blaze of heroic triumph, though in Bartok’s case it represents the 1848 Hungarian Revolution and its leading symbol, Lajos Kossuth. Slatkin began the piece very convincingly, but the brass section when it entered was out of control. The strings could also have benefited from a little Straussian “sheen.” There were some missed notes, especially when the horns and cellos were playing in unison, but for the most part the playing was very good and Slatkin was effective, though greater restraint in the brass section would have improved the balance.

What Kossuth convincingly demonstrates is that a post-Wagnerian style of grand Romanticism was a very real option for Bartok, though ultimately he sidestepped it. This piece gives us a fascinating glimpse into what that road would have sounded like if Bartok had taken it; at 22, he was already a master of orchestration and never wanting for interesting ideas and ways to treat them imaginatively.

The later Bartok was represented by Romanian Folkdances, seven enormously clever and entertaining piano pieces that Bartok arranged for orchestra because they were so accessible and popular. Despite their intended commercial appeal, they are charming settings, and Slatkin handled them well, always evoking the proper mood and setting.

Because of the large brass section called for by Kossuth, Slatkin made the clever decision to include the Janacek Sinfonietta on the same program. It also features large brass sections, here placed in separate choirs in the choral wings at each end of the stage. The effect was spectacular, particularly in the bouncy finale, probably best known as the basis for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Knife-Edge.”

(This kind of clever programming is a Slatkin trademark, very much in evidence earlier this week when he brought his Saint Louis Symphony to town for an eclectic program that included Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera, Aaron Copland, and–unfortunately–a Haydn symphony.)

Charles Ives’s First Symphony is a young work, and like Bartok’s Kossuth gives virtually no clue to its composer’s ultimate aesthetic decisions. Really the work of a student, it was written for Ives’s professor at Yale, Horatio Parker, and its sound world is that of late Dvorak. Yet there are subtle peculiarities–enough so that the work, like much of Ives’s output, was never performed during his lifetime. (Ives made a substantial living as an insurance salesman, steadfastly refusing to compromise his musical integrity as a “professional” composer.) Curiously, it was the CSO that gave the work its first complete performance, in 1965 (before recording it under Morton Gould), some 11 years after Ives’s death.

What is remarkable about the symphony is that it evokes the sound world of Dvorak in a far more interesting way than Dvorak ever could have, and still stands up remarkably well after almost a century. Tilson Thomas made a very convincing case for the work, which was well played though with some minor excesses of balance and harsh sound. Tilson Thomas’s tempi seemed appropriate, and his reading brought out Ives’s clever structural design more than many performances, which have tended to overromanticize the work (notably an old Ormandy recording I have from the 60s).

What is so fascinating about Ives and Bartok is that, even though they ended up in completely different universes of sound, they came to them in a similar manner–by attempting to solve the musical-language crisis of the 20th century by fusing the European tradition with their own national traditions, Hungarian and American respectively. The result, in both cases, is a startling originality that still stands head and shoulders above most of the century’s dead-end experiments in sound and half-solutions to the musical-language crisis, which is still with us today.

Undoubtedly the most magnificent and thorough exploration of Ives’s aesthetic is to be found in his final work, the Fourth Symphony. It is rarely performed, not only because of the sheer magnitude of the forces it requires but because of its structural complexity and the difficulty of playing it. But it remains, some 75 years after its composition, the quintessential modern, even avant-garde symphony.

It requires no less than two conductors (the Stokowski world premiere in 1965 and subsequent recording used three), and the augmented symphony orchestra includes chorus, brass band, three pianos (one prepared in quarter tones), celesta, organ, timpani, Indian drums, gongs, glockenspiel, theremin (in this case a modern substitute, a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer), and a celestial choir of five violins and two harps. So immense were the forces that the stage of Orchestra Hall had to be extended over the first three rows of the hall to make room for them.

The nagging question the symphony poses is no less than the meaning of existence, a question it attempts to answer in various guises. It does not canonize any one of them, ending instead with the ambiguity suggested by the title of another Ives work, The Unanswered Question.

Replete with quotes from American hymns, folk tunes, patriotic songs, and marches, the notorious second movement is a uniquely Ivesian account of the Fourth of July at Concord, with competing bands and drum-and-bugle corps. Great care must be taken that the carefully organized chaos doesn’t fall into real chaos, and here Tilson Thomas and his assistant James Sinclair did a magnificent job of keeping things tightly together.

Tilson Thomas has a unique understanding of Ives and the special problems his music poses. We are fortunate that CBS has recognized the special sound that the CSO can bring to Ives under Tilson Thomas’s direction: it is now recording a second digital release that will pair the Ives First and Fourth symphonies on a single compact disc. (The first Ives disc, released earlier this year, featured the Holidays Symphony, Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summertime, and both the original and revised editions of The Unanswered Question.) At last, the glory of Ives is being captured in all of the detail it deserves.

The gifts of Slatkin and Tilson Thomas are considerable when it comes to new music. These gifts do not extend to earlier repertoire, however, which may well have to do with these conductors’ contemporary perspective. They may find works of the 18th and 19th centuries tedious or irrelevant. Whatever the case, let’s hope that their future CSO visits will emphasize their strengths, not their weaknesses.