Ingo Metzmacher brings exciting 20th-century music

By Christian Kraus

Ives, “Central Park in the Dark” Beethoven, Symphony No. 2 Haydn, “Sinfonia Concertante” Hartmann, Symphony No. 6

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher, conductor

Symphony Hall, February 14

I don’t know if you’ve been to Central Park in New York. Even if so, you probably haven’t been there at night. Seems to be ill-advised to hang out there when it gets dark, and shady creatures begin to look out for those who want to get mugged. Or so the common myth has it. In any case, you’ve certainly haven’t been to Central Park back in 1870. If you feel as if you’ve missed something, how good that there is music to bring back the original experience. In fact, Charles Ives’s “Central Park in the Dark” tries to do just that. Eerie atonal string sounds introduce the atmosphere of a hot summer night, later overlayered by all kinds of sounds from a distance, from street singers to horse carts. Ives’s fascinating essay in early experimental music thus redefines what music may mean altogether. While we usually think of classical music as a reflection on its own time, or even a venture into a utopian future, music here tries to preserve a forgotten past.

With such innovative music, guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher began his challenging program — his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — that juxtaposed works from three centuries and at least as many styles. Metzmacher, the musical director of the opera house in Hamburg, has long been known as a champion of contemporary music, frequently daring his home audience with concerts entitled “Who is Afraid of 20th-Century Music?” Not surprisingly, this concert gave ample testimony of his capacity to make music of our own time sound as fresh and exciting as it should. At the same time, of course, he has kept up with recent trends in the performance of the great classical works.

Hence, Beethoven’s Second Symphony was given a fast-paced and energetic, yet transparent treatment, reminiscent of masters of historical performance practice such as Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner. A fresh account of a work that very much stands between ages, obviously indebted to Beethoven’s teacher Haydn, while exposing Beethoven’s unique temper and will. As Phillip Huscher wrote in the program notes, a work that “Haydn would have understood but couldn’t have written”.

Haydn’s own “Sinfonia Concertante,” a concerto for four solo instruments, again a work of more than one age, written in the classical style yet paying tribute to the baroque form of the concerto grosso, was played to open up the second half of the concert. Like in the Beethoven, Metzmacher reduced the size of the orchestra to produce an adequately classical sound. Here, Michael Henoch (oboe), William Buchman (bassoon), Yuan-Qing Yu (violin), and Stephen Balderston (cello), all of members of the CSO, got the opportunity to stand forth and display both their solo and ensemble skills. All of them did a fine job in a piece that does not allow for much virtuosity, but certainly for musical and stylistic sensitivity.

The real triumph of the evening, however, was the Sixth Symphony of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a German composer in the tradition of Reger and Hindemith. While it was sad to see that a number of audience members left after the Haydn to avoid this modern work, those that remained in their seats certainly did not regret those additional 25 minutes. Ingo Metzmacher is probably the greatest expert of the rarely-performed works of Hartmann today, having up to now recorded all of the latter’s symphonies. Hartmann’s Sixth, originally performed in Munich in 1953, is full of colorful and virtuosic post-romantic orchestral writing, as it exposes the full range of possibilities of a symphonic orchestra. The second movement, entitled “Toccata,” especially gripped the attention of the Chicago audience. Here, Hartmann uses the old techniques of highly sophisticated polyphony to slowly build up the full force of sound that then erupts in shattering climaxes. Sure enough, this is not easy-listening music. Neither is it as seemingly easily understood as a piece by Beethoven or Haydn. Yet, the patience and close attention that such a modern work demands points us listeners to an important fact, namely, that, even in the great classical works, it is never enough to simply sit back complacently and enjoy. Rather, every great work of music demands the active engagement of the listener, one who is willing to engage with the piece and let him/herself be challenged, and perhaps even changed, by the incredible experience of listening. For this important message we thank Ingo Metzmacher, and we hope that he will return to Chicago soon, with any luck to bring to us some more exciting 20th-century music.