Thursday, January 7, 2010

chicago qualms part one

For a theoretically Chicago-based blog, I haven't actually blogged about Chicago. So this is my first in a series of a few posts regarding the future of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The changes to take place with the CSO begin next season; this is my last year in Chicago, so I can only speculate on the orchestra's successes or failures. I'm also writing purposefully before the actual announcement of next season, because these are issues I've been thinking about for a while. I would love for the season announcement to prove me wrong about some of them.

Praise for the CSO's appointments--Riccardo Muti as music director and, more recently, Yo-Yo Ma as "creative consultant,"--has been almost unanimous. So I don't think it will hurt anyone to play devil's advocate for a bit.

To start: everyone should be reading Bass Blog to understand how an orchestra actually works. Often we forget that the orchestra is not this unified structure that we hear about from press releases and newspaper reviews. It is a massive organization loaded with people with disparate personalities who often conflict with the main line. The impression you get of the New York Phil or the CSO from reading newspapers is a bit different from being in a conservatory and knowing the musicians. Friends from Juilliard often tell me about NY Phil players bitching about conductors, administration, etc.

Let's begin with this post, which brings up a number of issues I would like to deal with; a musician in the orchestra describes the outreach attempts of previous music directors, concluding that
"So now we are going to redeem the underclass in {redacted}. And to accomplish this modest feat, we are hiring perhaps the most overbooked instrumentalist in classical music today, Yo Yo Ma. Forgive my skepticism, but I think I’ve seen this movie before. And I know how it ends."

No one can doubt that Yo-Yo Ma is a brilliant musician; he also does an incredible amount of outreach-type work, commissions new pieces, and goes beyond his celebrity status to be a truly consummate artist. But wouldn't it have been great to get a Chicago-based musician, who is not playing in a different city every weekend, to run a program which will hopefully reach into the inner city? Chicago has a number of excellent non-profit music organizations--The People's Music School (which runs a modified version of El Sistema) and Merit, among others--who I'm sure would love to work with Muti and the orchestra. The programs that Muti and Ma speak about are entirely new, and choosing an overbooked cellist to lead them could potentially have them fizzling out within a few years. I would rather see the orchestra administration building on existing Chicago institutions rather than creating ones which will be solely associated with the CSO. Ma simply walking into The People's Music School would be a major success for the students and faculty.

The idea of the "creative chair"/"person in residence" seems to be floating around a few orchestras now. This recent article in the Times poorly summarizes it. L.A. has John Adams; New York has Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Hampson, and Gergiev; and now Chicago has Ma, Mason Bates, and Anna Clyne (whom, for some reason, the Times article doesn't mention). Of course, the article also notes that Ma is now also a resident artist with the SF Symphony. Shouldn't there be a cap at one residency?

I think the best way to handle this kind of "creative chair" or "resident" post is to treat it like a curator of an art museum. The artist can program festivals, like Adams recently did in L.A. with West Coast/Left Coast, or Gergiev with the upcoming Stravinsky festival in New York. What I worry, though, is that the CSO guests will end up dividing up the "curation." I don't want to see Bates' and Clyne's role restricted to the MusicNOW series, which is mostly the case with Golijov and Turnage, their current in-residence composers. CSO occasionally plays their pieces in regular programs, but it always feels like a "special event" (like Turnage's Scorched last season) rather than a careful and artistic integration. Of course, none of those four is based in Chicago.

Lindberg and Gilbert should be commended for their artful integration of Lindberg's music into New York's subscription programs. I hope that Muti/Ma/Bates/Clyne follow their model: program the Bates and Clyne music into the regular orchestral performances, and, like Contact! in New York, save MusicNOW for commissions or premieres.

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