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SYMPHONY CHAMBER SOLOISTS OF CHICAGO

at the Art Institute's Fullerton Hall

February 16

Hard as it is to believe, the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra never embarked on a true joint venture until this year, though CSO musicians have occasionally rented the museum's Fullerton Hall for recitals. But this season CSO soloists are doing a series of concerts at the hall built around a theme that embraces both music and the visual arts. The format calls for a slide presentation before each musical performance and a guided tour of the galleries afterward. The whole thing has the earmarks of a clever marketing gambit, but it's the kind few cultural consumers can resist.

The impetus for the alliance came from the Art Institute's president, James Wood, and the CSO's Daniel Barenboim. Mary Sue Glosser, the museum's lecturer who's now in charge of the series, says, "In a series of this scope, we can closely examine music's ties to the visual arts. Many composers have expressed admiration for certain painters and vice versa. But how did they influence each other?" Indeed.

Music, painting, and sculpture spring from similar creative impulses. Yet they are quite different in a lot of ways. For instance, until the turn of this century paintings tried to be representational--rough filters of reality. Music, however, works on a more abstract level. It's a language of sorts, a system of relations built on tones, rhythms, and dynamics. The beauty of music is derived from the coherence of its internal logic and the way it unfolds over time. If architecture is frozen music, then music is architecture in motion. No self-respecting composer would ever want to be caught mimicking nature for the sake of mimicry.

Glosser admits it's difficult to come up with exact matches between music and painting; she decided to settle for "typical concepts or elements and see how they're dealt with by composers and artists over a period of years." This season the overarching themes chosen by her and her CSO counterparts bear such catchy titles as "Constructing Foundations," "Country Vistas," and "Perfectly Modern." The task of coming up with appropriate musical programs was left to the sundry CSO chamber groups that wanted to participate in the series (which, incidentally, is underwritten by Nakamichi, one of the few remaining corporate sponsors of chamber events).

In the first recital the Mallarme String Quartet performed key quartets by Mozart, Ravel, and Bartok--tracing very loosely though persuasively the stylistic evolution from classicism to romanticism. Among the artists offered for comparison were Jacques-Louis David, Delacroix, Goya, Matisse, and Picasso.

For the recent February concert longtime CSO violinist and concertmaster emeritus Victor Aitay and his colleagues, who collectively go by the cumbersome name of Symphony Chamber Soloists of Chicago, presented a potpourri of rather obscure late-19th- and 20th-century folk-influenced pieces under the rubric of "Country Vistas."

In her introductory remarks Glosser explained why artists since the Industrial Revolution have been invigorated by folk subjects and themes: "They admired the peasants' noble simplicity. The countryside was a relief from the craziness of the cities, of commerce. Kandinsky, like a lot of painters of his time, in fact, did extensive research on rural life [in Russia] when he was a young man. Painters like van Gogh and Chagall had a healthy respect for the intuition common in folk art. Their challenge was to take jewels of folk culture and frame them into more structured settings." Millet, Miro, and Brancusi--some of whose signature works are also in the Art Institute's collections--also made her list. "Not surprisingly, all of these artists loved music. Van Gogh took music lessons, and the fiddler was one of Chagall's favorite motifs."

The composers on the program were all collectors of folk melodies. Dvorak, who grew up in the Bohemian countryside and played in a village band, often injected the cadences of Czech folk songs into his music. Though melancholic at first, the Terzetto in C Major op. 74 has the naive and infectious charm of a country dance--with an obligatory stretch of pizzicati (and a viola part written for the composer himself). However, the performance by the Chamber Soloists was on the somber side.

Bohuslav Martinu was born in a Czech village a half century after Dvorak. While living in Paris, he became infatuated with ragtime and jazz, but during the 30s he rediscovered his roots and began incorporating such things as mountain calls and bagpipe drones into his music. After moving to the U.S. in 1941 he was homesick most of the time, and the nostalgia is unmistakable in his Madrigal Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Piano. In its first movement the trio makes grand gestures that are highlighted by flourishes from the piano. An agitated violin dominates for a while in the second movement, the restlessness relieved by spells of calm. Then the flute launches into a Czech tune, breathtakingly executing its pirouettes. Nicely played by Walfrid Kujala (flute), Fred Spector (violin), and Mary Sauer (piano), the music conveyed the heartfelt sentiments of a refugee looking homeward.

Jacques Ibert, a Frenchman of Martinu's generation, traveled widely and soaked up folk influences in Italy, Spain, and Tunisia. Skillful in all musical genres, he liked to use picturesque titles that reflected his penchant for scene painting. Two of his miniatures were on the program: the Aria for Flute, Violin, and Piano, a sweet, languid lullaby, and two interludes from Le burlador (for the same instruments), the first of which is a lugubrious preparation for the next, a spirited dance in the Spanish mode. Salon music to the core, neither changed my opinion of Ibert, whose faded reputation is supposedly on the rebound.

Brahms, whose Violin Sonata no. 3 concluded the concert, was of course a connoisseur of folk songs, Hungarian and German. But this sonata, written in 1886 during a summer sojourn in a Swiss resort town, is not a blatant advertisement for his hobby. By this time Brahms had transformed his folk influences into a vital part of his distinctive idiom, and what he was interested in was transferring his ideas for a grand symphony to a more intimate setting. In four movements--not the traditional three--the piano and violin carry on an intensely dramatic dialogue that's alternately foreboding and sunny. Unfortunately, the drama was not well served by Aitay and Sauer. Fiddling in his grandiloquent central-European way, Aitay seemed oblivious to his occasional flubs.

After the concert most audience members--musical novices, judging by the fact that they applauded between movements--followed Glosser on a tour. She led them from gallery to gallery, talking energetically of Millet, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Brancusi. The kinship she attempted to establish between the composers and painters might have seemed tenuous, but why fault a wonderful excuse to while away a Sunday afternoon?

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