Chicago Symphony Orchestra defies convention with contemporary works

By Manasi Vydyanath

It was an exquisite piece of aesthetic bookkeeping. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) presented four works by contemporary composers, two of them world premieres, in a program that seemed more keenly aware of the beauty of classification than combination.

The pieces were brilliant, eloquently symbolizing the postmodern emphasis on the unconventional opinion. If last Wednesday’s concert was a representation of the possibilities of classical music in the 21st century, the defining idiom might be called “conceptualism”—in which the primary focus of a work of art is to posit a new viewpoint, examine a new thematic angle, and tell a good story.

The narrative, descriptive, poetic, and critical perspectives take precedence over the presentation of such perspectives. Gone are the days of frenzied innovations upon form and structure; no longer does an ensemble have to walk around the stage, tap their instruments, and vocalize in order to make a point. They may still be called upon to do it, but it is no longer an “if and only if” statement for artistic merit.

The premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Ottoni opened the evening. This was a piece written for the brass section of the CSO, divided loosely into three movements. The forward impetus came from the trumpets and the trombones, with series of staccato repetitions and condensed scalic figures, folded into an arching melodic line by the horns and the bassoons. The thrust of the piece was inexorably upwards; the music roiled and seemed to reach for the unattainable, reveling in the glorious futility of the quest.

The passagework and technical coordination were fiendish; during a post-concert conversation, conductor Cliff Colnot put it with a gleeful succinctness: “9 on a scale of 1 to 10—10 being incredibly, insanely difficult.” However, the mellifluous performance, the aureate tones of the legendary Chicago Brass section in the second movement, and the final triumphant paean made the exposition of this piece seem effortless—a dissertation on the exquisite beauty of the impossible dream.

The second piece was the premiere of Marta Ptaszynska’s Pianophonia, a suite of three impressions on the paintings of Kandinsky, Tanguy, and Klee. Pianist Amy Dissanayake played with formidable mastery and control. In her introduction to the performance, Ptaszynska elaborated upon the manner in which the harmonies of the piece were linked to the scintillating colors of the paintings (especially the Kandinsky).

The bifurcated chord that begins the piece represented the sharp contrast at the heart of the painting: a melancholy blue and a vibrant yellow. The stark symbolism of the Tanguy was beautifully depicted, but the tour de force of the triptych was the Klee. The pointillist textures were evoked by a series of shifting, telegraphic staccato repetitions, and Dissanayake’s superb technique made every individual note stand out in isolation as well as in context. Ptaszynska managed to not only evoke the paintings themselves, but the very essence of each artist’s ethos. Her compositions were much more than mere evocative descriptions; they were philosophical explorations.

The third and fourth pieces were Another Face by David Felder and Gunther Schuller’s wicked parody A Bouquet for Collage. Felder’s composition was a pageant of disguises for solo violin, rendered by virtuoso violinist Robert Chen. Schuller’s piece consisted of a suite of individual movements bearing names such as “the mellow cello,” “piccyish,” and the immortal “Eine Kleine Ragtimemusic”—a ghastly, spectral ragtime as might have been played by the Ancient Mariner. Each fragment was a refraction, a morphosis where nothing is ever as it seems.

Each piece of this concert worked brilliantly in isolation, but the grouping of “modern music” into a concert that specifically deals with “music of today” was somehow forced. In the final analysis, classical music is just music. And such incredibly evocative, enchanting music should not to be spirited away, defined as something “exotic,” and placed in a concert where it is linked to the other pieces only by temporal placement. For instance, Pianophonia conceivably could have been premiered in a mainstream concert that included pieces by Mussorgsky, Debussy, and Schoenberg. This program would have drawn an audience base that was perhaps more diverse in its tastes, integrated the piece into aesthetic and historical context, and established it as belonging to “music” as opposed to merely the “music of our times.” The modern is too beautiful, too immediate, and too poignant to be placed in a glass showcase.