Here, with cuts restored, is my Tuesday January 19 Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com review of the Sunday afternoon January 17, 2010, Civic Orchestra of Chicago "Pierre Boulez @ 85" tribute concert conducted by David Robertson. I also include links here to the three recent New York Times reviews that I refer to in this review. Special Boulez tribute programs by both the full Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the CSO's MusicNOW series (on Sunday afternoon, January 24) continue through January.
Civic audience 'gets' daring concert lineup
Rapt silence for pieces not usually heard
In the last three weeks, New York Times music critics have reported instances of tittering, grumbling and walkouts by literally dozens of people before performances in Manhattan by the New York and Vienna Philharmonics of brief works by the long-dead 20th century Viennese composers Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Arnold Schoenberg. ["Gilbert Braces His Listeners for Webern," "Poetry for Times of Calamity and War," and "Visitors from Vienna Bring Both the Pastoral and the Not So Pastoral."]
I was at one of the New York Phil concerts earlier this month where music director Alan Gilbert found it necessary to have no fewer than three speakers talk to the audience for ten minutes before playing a nine minute work by Webern. Sitting in Avery Fisher Hall for these often apologetic remarks felt as if one were at a sex education class with a bunch of ten year olds.
How refreshing then to attend Sunday afternoon's Civic Orchestra of Chicago concert of three Webern works and a too-rarely performed Mahler work at Orchestra Hall under David Robertson's assured conducting, one more entry into a monthlong tribute for composer-conductor Pierre Boulez as he approaches 85 this March. An audience of 2,500 sat in rapt silence as Robertson and the young players gave readings both stunning and defined of the three Webern works.
Written between 1908 and 1913, the Op. 1 Passacaglia, the Op. 10 Five Pieces for Orchestra, and the Op. 6 Six Pieces are simultaneously experiments and fulfillments of sound, taking as starting points classical structures, miniaturization and romanticism. Nothing happens and everything happens in brief passages, some of only a few notes, and yet we get a sense of music that came before and the many musical worlds that would come after.
You could argue that a Civic audience comes to a concert hungry for new experiences and without prejudices. Such an argument begs the question as to why orchestral subscription audiences in New York think of 100-year-old music as new and scary and why they are so incurious. The Civic is of course the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and we can perhaps forget here that CSO audiences have two very long periods in the orchestra's history where both new music and music of the Second Viennese School have been regular agenda items. During Frederick Stock’s 37-year tenure, ending with his death in 1942, new works were a frequent order of the day. And then for the past 60 years, from Rafael Kubelik to Daniel Barenboim, Boulez and Bernard Haitink, we have had music directors who saw the revolutionary music of Vienna as a part of the standard repertoire.
Did or does every subscriber or ticket-buyer love this music? Of course not -- though more might if they could hear performances such as the Civic's on Sunday. But they accept that it is a part of the history, and while they might shy away from certain concerts, they don't get up en masse and walk out before a 5- or 20-minute piece. With Boulez having departed from the Philharmonic in 1977 and his eclectic successor Zubin Mehta leaving in 1991, a large part of the New York audience has had 18 years of truncated musical history and "safe" programming choices. That's a lot to overcome.
The Civic audience also "got" the idea of closing Sunday's program with the 1910-11 25-minute Adagio movement from Mahler's uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Here was music that anticipated much of the experimentation of Schoenberg and his circle, even if it was not heard by them -- or anyone -- until 1924.. It sounded in some ways as a benediction to his successors, urging them to follow their own spirits.