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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, December 4

By Lee Sandlin

Leif Segerstam made his debut this month as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Segerstam is the principal conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and is known back home as a tireless advocate of the local classical scene--he's made dozens of recordings, almost all of contemporary Scandinavian and northern European music. So it was no surprise that his program with the CSO was all Scandinavian: three classic works by Grieg, Nielsen, and Sibelius, and the world premiere of one of Segerstam's own orchestral pieces, which was blandly titled February.

But if the program sounded respectable, the concert proved freaky and tense. Segerstam likes taking chances, and his results were all over the map. Some things were brilliantly imaginative, some were hysterically overblown. And one performance was so bad it almost started a fight in the lower balcony. I've seen some odd concerts at Orchestra Hall over the years, but I can't remember any that have been quite so nerve-racking.

Segerstam got off to a rocky start by unwisely attempting to explain the point of February. He happens to be a skilled and prolific composer, but he's got into the bad habit of talking about his music in terms that make him sound like a lunatic. His address to the audience rapidly veered off into inscrutable allusions to Finnish folklore, or possibly to his own private mythology. I couldn't follow enough of it to offer a paraphrase, but I'm pretty sure I heard him say at one point that the metaphysical essence of February is that it has "six doors to open." Luckily the members of the audience were in an indulgent mood. Opening-night jitters, they appeared to be thinking--even when Segerstam trailed off in vague embarrassment midway through a sentence and then simply turned his back on the hall.

Anyway, he did manage to articulate the crucial point. February is an experiment, a work for full orchestra designed to be performed without a conductor. I've seen this done before with smaller forces, and in my experience you can get up to around a dozen players before the music starts to disintegrate. Segerstam was trying it with 87. It came off surprisingly well. He'd conceived the piece in such a way that it didn't require synchronized playing; it was made up of huge, ragged swaths of gorgeous orchestral color, of endlessly building crescendos of strings and horns overlaid with bells and pennywhistles and musical saws and assorted percussive snaps, crackles, and pops. Segerstam himself joined in at the piano (grandly, but from where I was sitting, mostly inaudibly)--which he'd deliberately positioned in the back row of musicians, out of the orchestra's line of sight, so as to forestall any surreptitious conducting by way of eye contact. Instead the players had to find their cues in the landmarks he'd scattered through the score: a harp trill, a particularly bold crash from the piano, a weird clack of wooden blocks. All in all, it was pretty fun to watch, though I thought it went on way too long--15 minutes or so when 5 or 6 would have been fine.

Then Segerstam resumed the podium and had a go at the Grieg Piano Concerto. This is a standard concert programming move these days: play a weird piece, then follow it up with comfort music. Ordinarily, this concerto is as comforting as it gets. It's one of those classic works of the Romantic high noon, where all of the various elements floating around 19th-century composition were magically aligned--a soloist's virtuosity with large-scale orchestral power, advanced harmonic theory with native folk-music material, wide emotional range with sturdy formal construction. It's a perfect expression--or anyway it ought to be--of the Romantic movement's great synthesis of individual and collective experience. But Segerstam had a different take on the piece. He seemed to regard it as a bunch of cheap thrills and gave us a Romanticism refitted for Las Vegas.

This was the performance that caused an uproar in the lower balcony. An incensed spectator began emitting stentorian boos, and at least one person sitting a few rows back pelted him with her program. (He didn't return after intermission.) I have to say I was on his side: it was awful. For me the big problem was the soloist, Ignat Solzhenitsyn. I've never heard him play before, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he must have been having a bad night. His performance was metronomic and characterless, except for those moments when he roused himself for a stretch of Liberace-style schmaltz. But Segerstam made things worse by surrounding Solzhenitsyn with big puffballs of orchestral bombast. The allegros were souped up hokum, and the exquisite adagio was drawn out into shapeless torpor. I don't know when I've heard music played with such brazen insincerity.

After the intermission Segerstam launched into Nielsen's Sixth Symphony, and the results were unexpectedly and glitteringly right. Everything that was so ugly about the way he did Grieg--the meandering tempi, the fake melodrama, the surges of kitsch--turned out to be perfect for Nielsen. The Sixth Symphony is a peculiar work anyway, no matter who conducts it: Nielsen called it Sinfonia Semplice, that is, "simple symphony," but that was just his little joke. It's a jagged collage of discordant fragments--lurid, silly, eerie, wild, and exquisite--and to this day, nobody has satisfactorily answered whether he concocted this extravaganza as a satire on modernist music or as a genuine attempt to catch up with the avant-garde. Maybe that very undecidability worked for Segerstam, because he succeeded in conducting it as simultaneously a serious work and a joke.

This wasn't a performance designed to reveal a complicated internal design no one had suspected before. Segerstam went in the other direction--atomizing the symphony into randomly spinning parts, and then treating the bits like little jeweled moonlets with their own erratic orbits. I'd swear he even made a unique move at the podium for each fragment: wriggling, bowing, fluttering his hands, doing a soft-shoe shuffle--not bad for a man who looks like, as he himself put it, "Santa Claus's brother." I've never heard another performance of this symphony that illuminated more of its incidental treasures or took in the disorderly whole with such delighted respect. It was the only performance of the evening that caught the excitement of Segerstam's best CDs--his wildly enthusiastic and thunderous sets of Scriabin, Mahler, and Sibelius--which make most other performances sound cowardly.

Segerstam finished up with Sibelius's orchestral piece Finlandia. His recording of this work, on the Chandos label, is an impassioned one, on the edge of being preposterously over-the-top. His performance with the CSO went way beyond that. It was too much, but I still kind of liked it. Finlandia is usually played for its travelogue patriotism, as though it were the sound track for a documentary about tundra and fjords; Segerstam conducted it as though it were a frenzied fireworks show, full of weird, jostling colors and colliding explosions. Maybe if the cause of Finnish nationalism meant anything to me, I'd have been offended by such a showbiz take on the music--for all Segerstam seemed to care, this could have been the theme for Star Wars. But I think he meant it to be as sheerly, absurdly impressive as possible, and that's exactly how it came off. At the very least, it was the loudest noise I've heard in Orchestra Hall since the rehab.

Yet totaling up my scorecard for the evening, I'd have to say that only the Nielsen really worked. Finlandia and Segerstam's piece were at best mixed, and the Grieg was a disaster. On balance, this was a bad concert. But I still ended up thinking that Segerstam has the right stuff--as much for what went wrong as what didn't.

Any conductor can come up with perverse or kitschy takes on the classics, but it takes someone with a special touch to coax one of the world's finest orchestras into following his lead. Segerstam's resume, after all, wasn't likely to cut any ice with the CSO--they're a ferocious bunch who've been known to eat visiting conductors for breakfast. I've seen them ignore a conductor outright, leaving him flailing around uselessly on the podium like a man trapped behind a plate-glass window signaling passersby for help. But Segerstam knew what he wanted, and for better or worse got the orchestra to play it for him. That right there makes his debut a success.

I also found Segerstam's own composition rather heartening--not that it was so great in itself, but that, like his conducting, it was so grandly sloppy and theatrical. This is something we haven't had enough of--modernist composers doing big crowd-pleasing pieces. In fact, one of the most tiresome aspects of modernism has been the number of composers who've been so hostile to the dramatic, the exuberant, the impressive. Most modernist music sounds like it was constructed with calipers on graph paper. And in part because it sounds like it was never intended to be performed in a concert hall, a lot of conductors are reluctant to program it; they stick instead to 19th-century music, no matter how exhausted it might be, because at least it was designed to provoke a positive response from a living audience. But Segerstam comes on the scene displaying a refreshing indifference to this stalemate. He obviously grew up on the modernist idiom and takes its thorniest and most alienating gimmickry for granted. At the same time, unlike many modern composers, he has experience on the podium and an old-style love for spectacle and orchestral power. He composes and conducts modernist music for its untapped potential as drama, not as a demonstration of some academic theory.

The downside of Segerstam's style is that the Romantic idiom is a foreign language to him, and he apparently sees little in it but theatrical gestures empty of content. (This could also be said of another modernist composer-conductor, Pierre Boulez.) But Romantic music is likely to remain at the core of the concert repertoire--so if Segerstam proves to be typical of up-and-coming conductors, we're going to be hearing a lot of teeth-grindingly weird performances of the classics. That seems to me a fair price to pay. There are any number of conductors who can do respectable performances of Romantic music with their brains on autopilot. But modernist music has been around for almost a century, and as far as interpretive performance goes it's still largely an unknown continent. It's good to see that expeditions are at last moving inland.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leif Segerstam photo.

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