I won't fully review the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performance, since I have too many friends in the orchestra. Needless to say, it was really excellent playing under the direction of David Robertson. Remember what I was saying, only five weeks ago, about programming Webern? Robertson really nailed this one (Edit: According to Andrew Patner, in the comments, Boulez programmed the concert in discussion with Robertson) . He situated the two "difficult" Webern works (5 Pieces op. 10, and 6 Pieces op. 6) between earlier music emphasizing the Second Viennese School's breakdown of tonality. By opening with the Passacaglia, Robertson introduced the listener to the Brahmsian, late-Romantic Webern. Most conductors, with Webern, do either-or. They program just early stuff, like the Passacaglia or Im Sommerwind, or only the atonal works (as in San Francisco). Instead, Robertson created a natural progression, even evolution, from Webern to Webern to Mahler (the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony). Placed after the three Webern works, the Mahler resonated as both a modernist and sentimental work, echoing (or foreshadowing) the lyricism of the Passacaglia and the strangeness of the Stücke.
I read Andrew Patner's review of the concert in the Sun Times, and would like to respectfully disagree with a couple of his points. He gives the Chicago audience (and, indirectly, the Chicago Symphony) a bit too much credit. Yes, the classical audience in New York is probably the most conservative in any American metropolitan area. But are
One of the reasons subscribers storm out when Webern or Schoenberg appears on a program is because they have paid a lot of money to hear the concert---why would they then be subjected to music they didn't want to hear? But if what you came to see, the Mahler Adagio, was the last piece on in free performance, it's probably worth stomaching 20-odd minutes of Webern. And let's not forget that much of the Civic Orchestra audience consists of friends and family of the performers.
Mr. Patner also writes that Alan Gilbert introduced his Webern performance in New York with a spoken introduction, but doesn't mention that Boulez and Robertson spoke on stage for 15-20 minutes about the music to be performed (a fascinating and fun little conversation). And the audience wasn't exactly in "rapt silence," at least up in the gallery; I could barely hear the opening pizzicati of the Passacaglia because of people whispering all around me.
I am not saying that the Chicago audience is any better or worse than the one in New York. But to point to one concert as an excuse to vindicate the Chicago Symphony's programming over the past eighty years is a bit much. Chicago has been home to plenty of adventurous and not-so-adventurous programming. I don't think Haitink has conducted one piece by the Second Viennese School since he's been principal conductor, besides Webern's early, tonal Im Sommerwind (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). Boulez's programs here, though excellently curated, have skewed towards the conservative side: early Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy.
Alan Gilbert is making an enormous effort to refocus the ears of thousands of listeners in New York who were left behind by the Philharmonic for twenty years. Let's give him the credit he deserves, rather than chastising the orchestra as they make the first step into the twenty-first century. And I don't think a review of a training orchestra is the right place to focus on another city's faults. I would love for Mr. Patner, as well as John