The CSO Synergizes Itself | On Culture | Chicago Reader

The CSO Synergizes Itself 

Marketing its music through its own label, the symphony adds value with a new kind of lecture series.

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A year and a half ago, amid proclamations that the music industry had been killed by downloading, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched its own label, CSO Resound. The former giant of the once-profitable classical music recording business had decided to "take control of our own destiny," says marketing vice president Kevin Giglinto.

CSO Resound has issued five CDs since then, and embraced the enemy by making the music on them available through iTunes and other digital retail outlets. Its latest recording, of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, as conducted by Bernard Haitink last spring at Symphony Center, was released this month. It's downloadable like the others, but the hard copy comes with a juicy bonus: a DVD of "Is Music Dangerous?," the latest presentation in Gerard McBurney's innovative three-year-old series for the CSO, Beyond the Score. Originally done live onstage at Symphony Center, McBurney's multimedia behind-the-music show plunges both Shostakovich's symphony and the audience into a historical context of convulsive industrialization and brutal Stalinist repression.

Don't be put off by Beyond the Score's bland title. This isn't music for idiots or mere program notes read aloud. McBurney, who dreamed it up—and was rewarded with a full-time CSO job—is a polymath. The British writer, composer, arranger, historian, and broadcaster has a talent for turning what used to be known as "music appreciation" into theater—getting under the skin of a classical piece and making it meaningful to contemporary audiences. His treatment of Shostakovich's Fourth is a case in point. In 1936, just after the symphony was completed, Stalin pulled the plug on its premiere; the composer had to wait 25 years to hear it played anywhere other than in his head. So in approaching it for the series, McBurney says during an interview on the DVD, he asked himself, "What is it about a piece of music that would make you want to silence it?"

It's no endorsement of Stalin's taste to say that this isn't the easiest music to love. Haitink, a 79-year-old Dutch national, admits on the DVD that he didn't at first feel "at home" with Shostakovich's work, which has been closely identified with Soviet communism, and that he had persistent doubts about this "monstrous" and explosive opus in particular. Shostakovich was 11 in 1917, when the Bolshevik revolution started; 15 years or so later, as a young composer turning out film scores, he became a favorite of the Russian people—and their dictator. In the mid-1930s, however, as the Soviet regime became more paranoid and oppressive and Shostakovich's music more "modern," Stalin turned on him. Two of the composer's operas (The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District) were denounced as "Western" and "difficult." An unsigned critique published in Pravda in January 1936—and said to have been written on orders from Stalin himself—signaled his fall. He completed the Fourth Symphony in fear for his life, McBurney says, but wrote to a friend that even "if they cut off my hands I'll continue composing with my pen in my teeth."

There are two parts to each installment of Beyond the Score. First McBurney does his thing, accompanied by excerpts played by the orchestra; then the piece is performed straight through. For part one of the DVD episode on Shostakovich's Fourth, a big screen hangs above the musicians and, as Haitink conducts the strident first movement with its alarm of an opening, clips from 1930s Soviet propaganda films dance past, showing black-and-white scenes of Russia's "great leap" into industrialization: billowing steam engines, fire-belching foundries, armies of workers with shovels and flares. McBurney narrates and Nicholas Rudall, former artistic director of Hyde Park's Court Theatre, interjects snippets from diaries, poetry, letters, and newspapers of the time. Later, when the music turns dark, there's footage of forced labor camps and firing squads and the defaced photos of purged officials. At the stunning minimalist conclusion—which would get any composer into heaven, Haitink remarks—the audience is looking into Shostakovich's eyes.

Is McBurney dumbing down the music by attaching extraneous material to it? Sure, in the same way that lyrics tame a melody. Interestingly, Haitink's reservations about this are made clear on the DVD. Describing Shostakovich—whom he once met—as "a man in his own world," Haitink says he isn't convinced that the Fourth Symphony was meant to be a reflection on Soviet realities. "It's all guessing," he adds, in a caveat that applies to the entire Beyond the Score project. "You can talk for hours about composers, but we'll never know exactly what these people thought. Music expresses something that you can't express in words."

CSO Resound was launched with seed money from board members Ralph and Betty Smykal and was made possible when the musicians union agreed to an arrangement that makes the players "partners," giving them some cash up front and more if the recording turns a profit. Nobody's banking on that, however. "The primary mission is to extend the brand," Giglinto says—a goal that arguably puts it in vanity-label territory. "We're not going into this venture expecting it to roll in a bunch of cash."

On the other hand, it is expected to become self-supporting. The first release, Mahler's Third Symphony, has sold over 14,000 units (the list price for all CSO Resound CDs is $19.99) and is now approaching the break-even point, Giglinto says, noting that the returns on self-produced recordings outpace anything CSO could expect from a major label. The Mahler has also racked up about 1,300 full-album downloads at $15.99 a crack, primarily from iTunes.

Videos of four previous Beyond the Score shows are available as free downloads at cso.org, and do-it-yourself packages (scripts, imagery, etc) are being licensed to other orchestras for their own performances. The CSO has used the series to build new audiences in Chicago; Giglinto says so far more than 35 percent of Beyond the Score ticket buyers are first-time customers. (The next live presentation is Sunday, 9/28, at 3 PM. The music: Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. These events sell out, so check before showing up at the door.) Meanwhile, he says, subscription sales are 5 percent ahead of last year, the budget's in the black, and excitement over CSO music director-designate Riccardo Muti is building.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Post No Bills and Crickets.

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