Looking into the early development of creative symphonic genius is a little bit like watching a runner in the early stages of a marathon. It’s not quite the same transcendent experience as being at the finish line at the moment of victory, but the insight into how that genius developed can be a thrilling experience in and of itself.
Ars Viva, the Skokie-based professional orchestra that gleans heavily from the ranks of the Chicago Symphony, offered early works of Schumann, Schubert and Brahms in its concert Sunday under the baton of Alan Heatherington, a fascinating look at how three Romantic giants came to maturity under the all-encompassing shadow of Beethoven.
As the producer for the Gilmore Festival’s biennial radio series, I was offered a sneak peek into the world of their newest Gilmore Artist Award winner, Kirill Gerstein, a few days before his CSO debut. The five of us in the WFMT studios listened as he transformed music from Bach’s English Suites into a tour-de-force of virtuosity and intense musical purpose. Every note was thought out and well-placed, every contrapuntal line in the potentially labyrinthine score brought out with intelligent interpretation and refreshing clarity.
As Mel Brooks once put it, “it’s good to be the king.” If you were a British royal in the 18th century, it meant having the cosmopolitan and talented George Frederic Handel at your disposal, conjuring regal music to celebrate all the important milestones in your life. Hand-picked from over 40 years that Handel spent in London, Jane Glover’s Music of the Baroque performed three of his pieces at the Harris Theater that collectively traced the arc of a royal life, from divinely-inspired birth through marriage and death.
In a season that already has heavily focused on the music of Igor Stravinsky, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra proved once again to be a masterful interpreter of the Russian composer’s art, presenting an enlightening take on his Ode, Apollon musagète, and Oedipus Rex with the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas.
In the program notes to this past weekend’s Chicago A Cappella concert at the Music Institute of Chicago, Artistic Director Jonathan Miller remarks that “for many of us, the spiritual has at its essence the quality of a gift-- a gift which is not meant to be hoarded, but shared and passed on to others.” This ethos of sharing and a passionate reverence for the source material were the pillars upon which the nine-member vocal group built their concert of varied spirituals, a testament to the power of this affecting music and to the communicative potential of the human voice.
I have to admit, it sometimes makes me a little nervous when a conductor steps on stage without a score. There’s enough that can go awry when 60+ musicians congregate in one place, without the conductor missing an entrance, miscuing the trombones, or taking a movement too fast.
But then there are the rare instances when a conductor inhabits a composer’s musical realm so intuitively and completely that having the notes to read would be superfluous. That was, without equivocation, the case with Jane Glover as she led the Music of the Baroque in a Mozart concert on Sunday in Evanston’s First United Methodist Church.
More than any other art form, music can be a salve that heals the soul in times of need and offers a glimpse of a brighter tomorrow. In a Martin Luther King Day concert filled with symbolism, the Chicago Sinfonietta gave its Orchestra Hall audience both of those things (and more) in an outstanding performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the composer’s ode to freedom and to the brotherhood of humanity.
Crossover concerts that meld different kinds of music often walk a fine line between accessibility and authenticity. At one extreme, they’re watered-down versions of the original that offend the purists and lose some of the qualities that made a particular genre of music attractive in the first place. At their best, audiences come for one reason, and have their horizons opened up to new experiences and other types of music.
Contempo’s recent performance at the Harris Theater, “Double-Bill: Where Jazz and Contemporary Music Intersect,” falls mostly into the latter category, combining three recently-composed pieces by Shawn Brogan Allison, Bernard Rands, and Yu-Hui Chang with a piano-sax jazz set by Chris Potter and Kenny Werner.
It’s hard to believe that almost a century has gone by since the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Generations of children have grown up watching Fantasia, and the music has long since been established as a staple of concert programs. Nevertheless, a standout performance has the potential to bring the house down, as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did with David Robertson this past weekend.
"M. Boulez at my house at 9:30,” wrote Olivier Messiaen in his diary in 1944. “Likes modern music,” he added. It was the understatement of the century. Pierre Boulez went on to become the perfect avatar of the postwar avant-garde, the one who permitted no compromise, no concession, no half-way, no consideration of values.
-- Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise