ARTS

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November 22, 2002

Conductor Lorin Maazel flicks the wrist; it's a technique

The Good, the Not-So-Bad, and the Unfortunately-Still-Ugly" should have been the title of the program for the November 15 concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall featuring music of Mendelssohn, Kearns and Bartók. The concert featured two works by Mendelssohn, including the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream and his Reformation Symphony No. 5. Contemporary composer Aaron Kernis contributed to the program with Simple Songs, which was flanked by Bartók's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.

The concert began with Mendelssohn's Overture to the great Shakespearian play. Mendelssohn wrote the overture in 1826, when he was just 17. The music was originally written as program music and later incorporated into Mendelssohn's Opus 61, which was a complete composition of incidental music to the play. The Overture has remained an audience favorite to the present day. But why? The answer lies within not just its musical aspects, but its visual aspects as well. The strings dominate this piece, from the fleeting eighth-note theme that kick-starts it, to the second theme, to the transition theme and finally to the closing theme. (Mendelssohn, in fact, uses the woodwinds similarly to the way Mozart does—as ways to change timbre rather than introduce thematic material.) The violins are the primary presenters of all the thematic material; they are nearly always in unison, and this is the key point: "The Ballet of the Bows." Not only is it wonderful to listen to the luscious lovers' theme of unison violins; it is just as enjoyable to watch two dozen bows dancing homogeneously to the music they are producing. Just as fleeting was the flick-of-the-wrist gesture with which guest conductor Lorin Maazel ended the piece, thus returning us to an early winter night's concert.

Felix Mendelssohn was commissioned to write the Reformation Symphony to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. Though it is by no means his greatest, this symphony sheds an interesting light on the composer's family history. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most important thinkers of the 18th-century, was also a leading Jewish scholar. His son, Abraham, decided to convert his family to Lutheranism in the heavily anti-Semitic environment of 19th-century Germany. But there must have been an inferiority complex that cast a shadow on this newly-converted family, similar to what converted Jews have felt since Josephus, the ancient Roman historian. Perhaps, then, Felix Mendelssohn felt a need to contribute ten-fold to the culture to which he was being assimilated. He was an overzealous Lutheran, as many of his letters and other personal accounts attest, but he has proven himself most in writing the Reformation and excavating Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. Mendelssohn brought Bach to the public eye in 1829 with a performance of the latter, after which Bach-fever spread like wildfire through Germany. Bringing back the master was not an easy task, since he had been characterized as an overly rational composer before his revival in the 19th-century; but Mendelssohn claimed the contrary. To him, Bach's music was as emotional as any piece of the Romantic repertoire and, furthermore, it was filled with his ardor for God. It was Mendelssohn who balanced the scales of rationality and emotion that rested on the fulcrum of Bach's counterpoint. Moreover, it is clear from comparing his early works with later ones that Bach's contrapuntal techniques influenced him greatly. Thus Mendelssohn presented the public with a historical image of a faithful Lutheran composer, and juxtaposed himself right beside him as a successor to that image. Some salient features of Mendelssohn's commemoration are the "Dresden Amen" tune in the first movement (used also by Wagner in Tristan und Isolde) and the chorale, Ein feste Burg is unser Gott (translated as "A mighty fortress is our God"), which provides the theme for the last movement. The work ended with the glorious tutti of the chorale and then came the flick of Maazel's wrist.

Intermission. During this time of auditory repose, I browsed the program notes for the second half of the concert and noticed with great pleasure that Kernis' music is a reaction against the intellectual, diffident, and atonal music of our day. Moreover, the composer himself said that he desires everything to be included in music, and for every possible emotion to be elicited. His piece Simple Songs for soprano (or tenor) and orchestra, sung by Jessica Jones in her CSO debut, was a good effort, but not quite there. While it was similar in setting and sentiment to Mahler's orchestral songs, Kernis' work was admirable for its tonality but lacking in one essentiality: form. The first song, "Holy Spirit," giving life to all life, was a 20th-century-esque atonal piece that brought back bad memories of 12-tone music for every sighing subscriber. (In fact, the gentleman behind me referred to nails on a chalkboard at this point in the program.) But then the last four songs (with exception for "First days of Spring") were Mahler-esque in their fin-de-siècle disillusionment, aptly conveyed by the aching voice of the soprano. Overall, Kernis' attempt has too much emotion and not enough direction. His music is a reaction to the intellectuality of 20th-century music, but I am afraid the envelope has been broken.

The concert ended with the pounding music of Bartók, which, thanks to the organ, shook every seat in the house. If the Kernis elicited sighs from the audience, then Bartók must surely have drawn swords. But after twenty minutes of music fit for a Bugs Bunny cartoon--which I always recommend imagining when listening to atonal music--Maazel's final flick of the wrist luckily arrived.