Chicago Symphony Orchestra
at Orchestra Hall, October 14 and 21; January 6, 20, and 27; February 24; and March 2
By Lee Sandlin
Daniel Barenboim has been music director and principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1991, and you'd think that by now Chicago's classical fans would have got over it. But a lot of them still regard him just the way they did when he first showed up--like some kind of bizarre practical joke foisted upon them by CSO management. Whenever I've told people that I thought Barenboim conducted a good concert--or, more recklessly, that his tenure with the CSO wasn't proving to be a total disaster--I've been greeted with looks of pity, as though I were some bumpkin off a turnip truck who thought Chicago politicians were honest.
Barenboim has just finished up his latest season at Orchestra Hall, and after attending his concerts pretty faithfully, I'm prepared to lay my head on the chopping block and declare that he's a good conductor. I won't say he's ideally suited for his job; he can be justifiably slagged for many things--his stodgy taste, his erratic control of the orchestra, his aloof indifference to American music in general and the local scene in particular. But on the sheer, brute level of performance, he's been doing just fine. I heard him conduct eight times this past season, and I'd rate four of the concerts as excellent, two more as at least decent, and two as interesting failures. There were no turkeys. If any other contemporary conductor had that kind of scorecard with the CSO, Chicago's classical fans would be calling this a golden age.
I understand why they're so mistrustful. Anybody who heard Barenboim during his early, flailingly inept years with the CSO would find it hard to believe he was ever going to be capable of conducting a decent concert. He seemed to be going out of his way to be as perverse and alienating as possible: his rhythms were slack, his tempi were bizarre, his sense of orchestral balance and color was as luridly distorted as a fun-house mirror, and his podium technique was so eccentric he looked like he was thrashing through pudding. Worse, a lot of the musicians seemed to despise him so much they could barely bring themselves to play along, which routinely reduced the ensemble work to a shambles. Back then attending one of his concerts at Orchestra Hall was like gawking at a train wreck.
But Barenboim should have been given more credit, considering what he was up against. He'd taken over the orchestra from Georg Solti, who for better or worse--mostly worse--had stamped his personality on its playing style. There's a curious delusion in this town that Solti was a great conductor. In fact, he was an old-style orchestral drill sergeant whose aesthetic consisted of maximum precision at maximum force. By the time he retired his style had hardened into self-parody: he conducted every piece with the exact same mix of icy dignity, ponderous exactitude, and deafening power. It was like having Mount Rushmore fall on you.
In contrast, Barenboim's style--as displayed not only in his earlier conducting but also in his spectacular performances as a pianist--was always fluid and exuberant. One reason his recordings tend to be dull is that he clearly prefers the excitement of performing live--from the outset he wanted the CSO to play with the sort of spontaneous, improvisatory energy of a jazz band. It's hard to picture a tougher challenge than getting the CSO to loosen up, but Barenboim surely deserves points just for his bullheaded refusal to quit trying.
And now it's clear he's succeeded--helped along by attrition in the orchestra's personnel. I didn't realize how drastically the CSO's sound had changed until last October, when I happened to hear it perform in the same week as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The BPO makes a specialty of just the sort of over-the-top orchestral barrage the CSO was famous for under Solti; that night they played Mahler's Third Symphony, which is renowned for its sustained, shatteringly loud crescendos, and from where I was sitting near the stage it was like being underneath a 747 revving up to full throttle. A few nights later I heard Barenboim and the CSO, and while they could no longer match the BPO for raw power, their sound was nimbler, wider ranging, and much more unpredictable and exciting. They did a furiously impassioned race through Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto--guest soloist Evgeny Kissin was so frenzied I worried he'd break something--a lyrical and mysterious excerpt from Elliott Carter's major new orchestral work, Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei, and a thrilling, gorgeously lush take on Debussy's La mer. All of them were freshly imagined and powerfully played--the concert couldn't have been a better vindication of Barenboim's struggle to remake the CSO's style.
As his command of the orchestra has grown more assured, his own most exasperating mannerisms have begun to fall away. Only once this past season did I hear him give a concert that reminded me of the bad old days: when he led the CSO and guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma in a languid evisceration of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. This piece seems designed for showboating, and it takes genuine commitment from both soloist and conductor to rein in the flash and reveal its most exquisite effects--a commitment both Ma and Barenboim casually shrugged off. Instead we got shamelessly distended rhythms, kitschily excessive cadenzas, goofy trailing diminuendos. The performance was self-indulgent and absurd, and the only thing that saved it from being a genuine insult was the undisguised glee the two perpetrators took in their vandalism. I actually enjoyed that, though I was pretty tired of it by the last movement, and I decided that Barenboim's love of perversity isn't hard to take if you have to hear it only once or twice a year.
These days Barenboim plays it mostly straight--so straight that his biggest risk is dullness. When he conducts one of the standard works of the repertoire he usually gives it a strong dramatic line and a lucidly balanced orchestral texture--in other words, he goes for the simplest effects by the shortest distance, as dutifully as a designated driver. I suppose it's preferable to his old directionless floundering, but it's not exactly a recipe for dazzlement. That wouldn't necessarily be a major handicap, except that he doesn't have an expansive view of the classical landscape; far too much of his concert programming is given over to that dreary litany of Brahms symphonies and Tchaikovsky piano concertos and Stravinsky ballet scores all classical fans can replay in their sleep.
It's a pity, because lately his big successes have been with lesser-known or even marginal works--anything where he can create a sense of excitement or discovery. His high points this season were with Mahler's Fifth Symphony and two minor works by Bruckner, the Fourth Symphony and the Mass no. 3. His bold theatrical gestures and fluid, improvisatory tempi made all three works seem explosive, unpredictable, and ferociously dramatic. I especially admired the way he handled Mahler's peculiar swerves of tone from dark grandeur to giddy mockery--it was a fine touch to make the allegedly lighter moments sound so sinister, as though they were from a horror-movie sound track. He was even better with Bruckner, particularly the mass, because he caught brilliantly the Beethoven-like melodrama of Bruckner's spiritual struggle. It was genuinely thrilling when, with the aid of a soaringly beautiful performance by the Chicago Symphony Chorus, he built the great crescendo of the kyrie into an Everest of exaltation.
I only wish he pushed himself like that more often, especially with modern music. His stodgy taste there is particularly frustrating because he does play the 20th-century repertoire very well. He just thinks that it begins and ends with atonal modernism. That might have been a daring stand 20 or 30 years ago, but it now just looks quaint. Contemporary classical music is a jumble of competing styles--of neoromanticism and minimalism and pseudomedievalism and new tonalism and what all. Some fashionable composers, John Adams in particular, have taken to writing atonal music just to be wittily retro. But Barenboim is still treating modern music gingerly, even apologetically--he clings to that old, cowardly concert-programming maneuver of surrounding a lone, brief avant-garde work with some of the safest, most familiar comfort-food classics in the repertoire, so as to soothe the nerves of the old guard in the audience. Surely we'd all be better off if Barenboim started programming the rowdiest anarchists, just to clear some of the dead wood from the CSO's subscription base.
This stylistic timidity really hurts the CSO's commissioned work, which ought to give us a chance to hear the edgiest contemporary orchestral music. Instead we've been getting mostly a dire procession of old-style modernist tedium. The best of it, I suppose, has been Pierre Boulez's Notations, an abstract research project in hypersophisticated harmonic theory that Boulez has been working on for 30 years or so and may someday get around to finishing (according to his initial design, he's still only halfway through). This past winter Barenboim and the CSO performed the finished sections--about 40 minutes' worth of fearsomely rigorous noise. It wasn't exactly a bad time, but the performance suggested that we're not going to be able to tell when the whole thing is done, because every section sounds like every other section, and any number of them can be played in any order. Yet I would still rather sit through a full program of it--whatever the hell it is--than the by-the-numbers exercises in post-Schoenberg formalist hackwork turned out by the CSO's composer-in-residence, Augusta Read Thomas. I have yet to hear a piece of hers that gave me any clue why she wanted to write it, except that it might look impressive on a grant application. Barenboim's continuing patronage of her work suggests that he really needs to get out more.
To be fair, he's trying. He's never acted like he had the slightest interest in American music; he's always come off as one of those perpetually jet-setting classical superstars who's not entirely sure what country he's in without checking the letterhead on the hotel stationery. But this season he suddenly revealed a previously unsuspected side to his taste by collaborating with Wynton Marsalis in a concert devoted to the music of Duke Ellington. This looked like a dreary exercise in cultural condescension, but it turned out to be a straight, respectful, and interesting program. Barenboim genuinely admires Ellington as a composer and plays his music well. If the concert wasn't satisfactory, that was more the fault of Marsalis, who was predictably stiff and solemn, and the decision to play Ellington works rescored for large orchestra. Ellington mastered the big-band idiom as absolutely as Scarlatti mastered the harpsichord sonata, but that doesn't mean his music will work when blown up to the size of a full-strength symphony. Still, I came away impressed by Barenboim's imaginative sympathy for works you wouldn't have supposed he'd give a rat's ass for. Now if only he'd show the same initiative when it came to Charles Ives or Harry Partch.
But music-school orthodoxy is more his speed, as shown by his most significant commission in recent years--a new opera from the archbishop of American modernism, Elliott Carter. This past month Barenboim premiered a concert performance of this hour-long work, cheerily entitled What Next?--a good demonstration of where he currently is with the CSO, both in his mitigated failures and not-quite-unambiguous successes. A lot of people consider Carter the greatest living American composer, which may be more a tribute to his age (he's in his early 90s) and his lifelong refusal to compromise his aesthetic than it is a compliment to his music. He's the model of an establishment composer, bristling with sophisticated compositional theories and festooned with high-art honors; not only has he collected grants and prizes in profusion, but he's frequently collaborated with ultrafashionable poets such as John Ashbery. But his music is also pretty bizarre. It disassembles the traditional sonic textures of classical composition into abstracted fragments, which are set whirling in complex arrhythmic patterns--as though a symphonic score had been put through a shredder and then tossed into a tornado. Whether you find this glittering tumult to be exhilarating or oppressive, it sounds like nothing else on earth.
Carter is about the last person in contemporary music you'd think of if you wanted to commission an opera, so Barenboim deserves full marks here for originality. It's also impressive that the librettist, music critic Paul Griffiths, managed to think up a scenario where Carter's style would make some kind of sense. What Next? is about the aftermath of a traffic accident, with the characters all wandering around in a daze waiting for the ambulances to arrive. They don't quite remember who they are or how they're related to one another, and they sing about their assorted confusions in a jumbled interplay of dissociative arias and desultory duets. The effect, at least for the first 20 minutes or so, is interesting and convincing. Carter, for all his avant-garde ferocity, writes well for the voice, and it's impressive that he was able to compose an extended piece that's both singable and as uncompromisingly odd as ever.
However, as an opera it's an absurdity. The answer to What Next? turns out to be "nothing." The initial situation doesn't resolve or even change. At the close the characters are just as befuddled as they were at the outset, and the ambulances still haven't arrived (I don't know where this is supposed to be set, but the local municipality ought to hold hearings on its EMS response time). I suppose it's possible that the whole thing is intended as a Twilight Zone episode and they're all dead or in limbo or something, or maybe it's a satire on the chaotic triviality of everyday life. But it's too inconsequential to work as allegory, and if it's satire it's not funny. You'd get a better sense of the jumbled meaninglessness and horror of contemporary America by watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Barenboim further muddied its effectiveness by the surreal choice he made to fill out the concert program: Manuel de Falla's crowd pleaser The Three-Cornered Hat. Why he thought these two works belonged in the same concert, or even on the same planet, I have no idea. But he couldn't have made Carter's musical landscapes sound more aberrant if he'd picked the theme from Star Wars. For What Next? to get a sympathetic hearing--rather than the open contempt much of the audience displayed--it has to have some kind of context. It should have been on the second half of the program, after a couple relatively approachable modern works, maybe one by Carter himself (such as the magical Symphonia the CSO played earlier this season). The message of the concert as it stood was that Carter's music is even stranger and more irrelevant than you thought--it makes sense only if you've had a concussion.
Was it a bad program? Well, no, not exactly. Barenboim conducted the Carter with dazzling drama and an extraordinarily subtle ear for the submerged lyricism of the score (this is a hallmark of his approach to Carter; his performance of the Symphonia excerpt was much lovelier than the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording by Oliver Knussen). And the CSO tore through The Three-Cornered Hat with a wild exuberance that brought the house down. Not a bad concert at all, really. In the old days I would have said that for Barenboim it was a near miracle of assurance and grace. But he's been proving lately that he's consistently capable of better things--so maybe we don't have to cut him slack anymore.