The Unanswered Question: It’s time we got metaphysical

By Anne Lovering Rounds

Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Nobody knows the original utterer of this piece of bumper-sticker wisdom, familiar to so many musicians. Some believe it was Steve Martin; others say Miles Davis. Sill others claim Elvis Costello. Whoever said it first, it has become a tired quotation. Still, the sentiment is noble: all too easily, words take away music’s pointedness. In the face of a single phrase or an especially lyrical melody, words become hyperexplanatory, vague and meaningless. Sometimes, music expresses what words just can’t.

If this is the case, the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doesn’t have an enviable job, and he must have had an especially difficult time preparing the notes for Friday night’s performance. Under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, the orchestra performed Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, Witold Lutoslawki’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Brahms’s First Symphony in C-minor. Somebody has to say something to prepare the audience for these pieces, especially the first two—a few words on Ives’s musical intention, or a few words on Lutoslawki’s cultural context. None of them is an easy listen, nor does any come from the mainstream repetoire beloved by Symphony Center audiences. But what can one say, if talking about music is like dancing about architecture? Of the Ives, the first piece on the program, Philip Huscher came up with the following: “A single trumpet repeatedly asks the question of existence, and when the strings don’t respond to the trumpet’s seventh and final question, the sound of eternity suddenly seems deafening.” The question of existence? The sound of eternity? Do these phrases remind anyone else of the hasty conclusion of a freshman English essay?

Pseudo-intellectual program notes aside, Ives’s six-minute piece, and the orchestra that performs it, do invite the audience to philosophize. The annotator might even be right: the piece is a musical articulation of human ephemerality. But the orchestra itself communicated what the florid prose in the commentary didn’t quite manage. With its two conductors—one for the winds, another for the rest of the orchestra—its super-pianissimo string parts, and offstage trumpet, The Unanswered Question requires both concentration and control. Friday’s performance was admirable in both respects. The string entrances were delicate; the offstage trumpet was audible and eerie; the small ensemble of winds, while under separate direction, never seceded from the rest of the orchestra. Why is the presence of two batons on one stage so perturbing? Where does melody come from? What is the unanswered question? Wherever the answers may lie, they aren’t in the program notes. If Friday’s audience had been listening instead of reading, they would have come away impressed with the talent of the CSO and satisfied with its interpretation of Ives’s work.

The Unanswered Question sets the bar high as a concert-opener, since the music that follows, intentionally or not, becomes a response. But if Ives asks his question in six minutes, Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra only reiterates it in 30. The somewhat obscure composition calls for many of the less-heard orchestral sound effects: four timpani, a marimba, two harps, a contrabassoon, a celeste. Even a concert piano makes it into the score—from the percussion section, all the way at the back of the semi-circle. Its melodies are reminiscent of Bartók; its rhythms are complex and contrastive. And as a segue to the cerebral Ives, the Lutoslawski was successful. The same way Ives makes us wonder what his unanswered question is, Lutoslawski forces us to ask where the concerto is. Where are the soloists? Who has ultimate authority? Why are we listening? The orchestra’s execution was not so subtly smooth as it had been in The Unanswered Question. There were a few sloppy entrances, a few more times the orchestra members should have been watching Dohnanyi instead of their scores, a few dynamic contrasts that could have been more marked. But the repeated celeste notes at the end of the first movement were suggestivo in a way Ives himself might have appreciated. It wasn’t the most riveting performance of a lifetime, but at least Lutoslawski stood up musically to Ives’s challenge.

Brahms, on the other hand, did not. The first symphony, so rooted in its minor key signature and funereal mood, was a poor choice for the concert’s second half. Only the most polished performance could have provided a profound response to Ives’s inexpressible question. But instead of a bold shift, the juxtaposition felt forced, and the dark, passionate Brahms—Brahms the romantic, the composer of Ein Deutsches Requiem—was nowhere to be heard. Dohnanyi, conducting from memory, was expressive and passionate, but the orchestra was catatonic at best. The pizzicatos in the first and final movements lacked the requisite snappiness; the accelerandos in the last movement didn’t contain nearly enough electricity. While the tone of the second movement was rich and lush, it struggled hard for rhythmic definition; in the end, it came across as no more than a generic andante. (The double-conducted feel of the Ives should not have been an issue in the Brahms.) Where was the notion of the crescendo? Where was fortissimo? In this era of sophisticated sound technology, with digital remastery, bass boost, and state-of-the-art speaker systems, it’s easy to forget that the real volume of a piece in live performance will differ from the private, recorded living-room experience. But the dynamic rarely drifted from the mezzoforte range, save in the last few minutes, when the tension had built enough to produce a convincing conclusion. The performance needed more: more volume, more intensity, a better, Brahmsian attempt to answer to Ives’s question.

“What does it mean? What are we going to do?” asks poet W.H. Auden in his poem “It’s No Use Raising A Shout.” The music of all three composers on Friday’s program asked these questions, too. Despite an under-rehearsed Lutoslawki and a Brahms that lacked energy, we were able to hear them. The program annotator need not have wasted his breath, except for a few terse biographies. The anonymous cliché rings true. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and it’s no use raising a shout. The best response to Ives, to Lutoslawski, and to Brahms might not be applause, nor anything written or spoken. It might just be respectful silence.