Wednesday, January 20, 2010

boulezapalooza pt. 1

I saw two great concerts this week, both under the guise of Pierre Boulez's 85th birthday, but neither featuring any actual musical participation from the man himself. That's understandable--he is a busy guy. He deserves a couple days off, whether or not he decided to take them.

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 Chicago Civic listeners actually "hungry for new experiences and without prejudices"? (Edit: I conflated the Chicago and Civic audiences here, a misinterpretation of Patner's article) If anything, they're just hungry: it was a free concert, something Patner does not mention.

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 van von Rhein at the Tribune, to take a hard and critical look at the Chicago Symphony, and the Chicago classical music scene, and see what it lacks that New York has. They might find quite a bit.


  1. Dear Billy,

    Good to read your comments and glad that you liked the concert as much as I and many others did. I enjoy reading your weblog and appreciate your insights and your passions. As you devote five of your seven paragraphs here to my review of the concert -- and thank you, too, for linking to my full review at my site so that others might see what I did or did not write there -- I'm afraid that I have to respond to a number of your points.

    1) The concert was programmed by Pierre Boulez in discussion with David Robertson. This was made clear to the audience during the pre-performance conversation.

    2) I certainly *never* said nor would I say that "Chicago listeners" are "hungry for new experiences and without prejudices"! I said, "You could argue that a *Civic* audience comes to a concert hungry for new experiences and without prejudices" (emphasis added) "and then I added, "The Civic is of course the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra." While I might have omitted in this review that Civic concerts -- all Civic concerts for decades -- are free this is a part of the Civic and it is exactly part of why I was pointing out that a Civic audience *is* different from a CSO subscription audience. There are similar audiences -- of students and teachers and musicians and families and immigrants and just fans -- in New York and elsewhere, of course.

    3) Subscribers in Chicago *don't* storm out of such programs or such portions of other programs. And they are paying to attend those concerts, too, some of them are paying, as you note, a considerable amount. Nor do all subscribers in New York storm out either, obviously!

    4) I have nothing against pre-concert conversations of what ever length. What happened at the Phil was a mid-performance *set* of comments by three different people that broke the mood of the program, set a single piece apart, made claims that that piece would be "harder" to listen to than the rest of the program and generally "tough," and lasted two minutes longer than the brief piece that was being played. I found it unsettling and Allan Kozinn took note of it in his New York Times review of the first performance of the concert (and I linked to that review). The conversation at the Civic concert was a chance for the Civic audience to have some "face time" with Pierre Boulez. He and Robertson said some wonderful and funny things But they never talked *down* to the audience. Maybe you find these sorts of things comparable. I didnt.

  2. 5) I didn't "point to one concert as an excuse to vindicate the Chicago Symphony's programming over the past eighty years." I made an attempt to compare and contrast some lengthy periods in the histories of the CSO and the NY Phil, comparisons that I ran past two of my most thoughtful New York critical colleagues before publishing. I stand by them. My point as you also echo, is that audiences respond to the musical leadership of an orchestra. Chicago audiences were *lucky* that they were*not* "left behind" for 20 years. New York orchestral subscription audiences had a different lot.

    6) I don't know that there are or should be rules about what can or cannot be said in a review of a training orchestra, particularly if such an orchestra's concerts or performances raise larger points or questions. And I'm glad that you yourself did not abide by any such rule in your comments above!

    7) I absolutely hope that Alan Gilbert is a success in every possible way with the New York Philharmonic in New York and around the world and I also absolutely admire his efforts to refocus those listeners' ears.

    8) I like to think that I have been taking a hard critical look at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago classical music scene for 30-odd years now. I have certainly praised many, many aspects of the New York scene during that time and continue to do so: I make a point of visiting New York and concerts, operas, and other performances there several times a year. I was there a few weeks ago and I'll be there -- including at Carnegie Hall, the MET, and (Le) Poisson Rouge, three New York institutions/establishments that we surely do not have in Chicago! -- again in a few days. And I am always open to additional suggestions there.

    9) It's *von* Rhein, not "van."

    Obviously when people write or talk about their home cities and their local orchestras or the orchestras they grew up or cut their teeth on they often do so with passion. Thanks again for sharing yours and allowing me to share mine!

    Andrew Patner -- Chicago Sun-Times/WFMT Radio Chicago and

  3. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks so much for responding! My responses to your responses:

    1) I wasn't sure if that was the case (I wasn't initially planning on blogging the performance and didn't take any notes during the concert), but it certainly makes sense.
    2) This is actually a good point, that the audiences almost certainly are different.
    3) I will say, that in the course of my four years in Chicago, the audiences are a thousand times better than those in New York. Less coughing/murmuring during modern music (actually, less coughing during all music), and few patrons storming out after a concert has ended. Lyric Opera still has the problem of people walking out before an opera ends, but I think that's an opera thing rather than a Chicago thing. I have no problem with saying the New York audience is kind of terrible.
    4) I really did like the Boulez/Robertson conversation, which was considerably more intellectual than most pre- or mid-concert comments. And certainly the idea of "bracing" the listeners like in New York was not present here. I read Allan Kozinn's review when it printed and was a little disappointed that Gilbert had to have three speakers to describe such a short piece. I cannot comment on the concert since I wasn't there, but it would probably have been more effective to make the comments before Im Sommerwind, and segue directly into the Symphony--as Robertson/Boulez did with Civic, not breaking the atmosphere between works.
    5) I agree that New York audiences were left behind. I can't comment on previous CSO directorships since I arrived here in the first year of Boulez/Haitink. I think their programming in general is admirably intelligent and artistic, but I wouldn't really call it adventurous.
    6) That was definitely me being hypocritical, and I will 100% retract that statement. Considering that one of my issues with the smaller classical criticism establishment in Chicago is that we don't get as many think pieces, often just reviews and announcements (and that's obviously not your or John von Rhein's fault), I shouldn't fault you for bringing up important issues in a review. And my blog is certainly 100% about that--using concerts to talk about wider issues in classical music.

    I hate to ever take issue critics, since classical music criticism is such a small world and no one really gains from potshots. I'm glad you could respond to my criticisms thoughtfully and do a better job of articulating some of my points than I did.

  4. Haitink has also conducted another early Webern work, the Passacaglia, in addition to the CSO-commissioned Chicago Remains, by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Boulez conducted a fair amount of Augusta Read Thomas's music when she was composer-in-residence, as did Barenboim (who appointed her), but Boulez obviously is going to find less interest in Turnage and Golijov than he did w/ Thomas. Other composers Boulez and Barenboim conducted include Dalbavie, Isabel Mundry, George Benjamin, Ligeti, Pintscher, Bernard Rands, Boulez's own music, and of course Boulez's appearances on the CSO's contemporary-music series with their several living folks. There are probably others I'm missing. The point isn't that the CSO is more or less adventurous than the NY Philharmonic, just that Boulez has included a bit of extremely good contemporary music in his largely 20th century programs. The quality has been as noteworthy as its concentration, I think.

    The problem w/ orchestras and contemporary music is that they A) never do enough and B) don't do enough of style X. The day will never arrive when an orchestra is hitting all the bases out there, and doing as much minimalism as they are post-tonalism as they are post-Webernian serialism. What you want to build is an audience that will trust you no matter what style of new music is on the program, and I think it's safe to say that w/ Boulez as your conductor emeritus and Turnage/Golijov as your resident composers, you're likely fulfilling your responsibility.

  5. Marc,
    Thanks for your insightful comment. I forgot about Chicago Remains (which I didn't get to see). Certainly when I arrived in Chicago a few years ago (the first Boulez/Haitink season) I was impressed by the CSO's programming in comparison with Maazel's in New York. I think MusicNOW is a great system. I just hope that when Muti takes over we see the kind of integration of new music and adventurous programming that Salonen had in L.A. (and that Dudamel is continuing, albeit a bit differently) or that Gilbert is doing now in New York. I can't really fault Boulez/Haitink for not being music directors; they are fulfilling their duties as principal/emeritus conductors, and exceeding what could be expected of those positions. Although Turnage and Golijov are great composers and I have enjoyed all their MusicNOW concerts, they are jet-setting composers not based in Chicago. Although Bates and Clyne don't live in Chicago, they will hopefully have a bit more of a direct relationship with the orchestra since they're not as huge-profile names. I never really got the sense of Golijov and Turnage having a real presence in Symphony Center, in the way that Magnus Lindberg now has in New York.

  6. Great points by Marc (and Boulez also did large works by Philippe Manoury, Bruno Mantovani, Hanspeter Kyburz, and others, as well as chamber works of Carter -- Barenboim having done huge amounts of symphonic Carter and the premières of Carter's opera "What Next?" as well as works of Mundry and Thomas) and no argument with Billy about the composers-not-in-residence. But Anna Clyne is moving to Chicago and Mason Bates, who has his family in San Francisco, has already been making his presence felt in Chicago even before his appointment starts. I think that they will both be around quite a bit -- but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating as ever!