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April 9, 2002

Odd Bedfellows at the CSO

Rossini, "Overture to William Tell"

Lutoslawski, Cello Concerto

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade (Op. 35)

William Eddins, conductor

Lynn Harrell, cello

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Thursday, March 28 2002

Rossini, Lutoslawski, Rimsky-Korsakov. I found myself approaching this concert with one main question: What could possibly be the logic of this program? Why on earth do these pieces go together?

Perhaps an answer to this can found by considering the lightest piece on the program: Rossini's "Overture to William Tell." That a concert could be structured around its overture is a peculiar notion. It seems to contradict the very nature of the word—after all, isn't an overture only a buildup to the main event? Furthermore, overtures all too often seem to be selected at random, receive little attention from the audience (or the advertisers), and serve as warm-ups for performers. At worst, the overture becomes a ten-minute courtesy period for those latecomers whose crème brûlée took precedence over the music.

So what does Rossini have to say about all of this? Or rather, what does a performance of Rossini today have to say about all this? The "Overture to William Tell" has undergone a curious shift in interpretation, one stranger than the reception of its composer. The piece is structured in four sections, each a quasi-movement with its own tempo, texture, and thematic identity. Over the course of the last 170 years, each of these sections has been appropriated into different contexts, so wide that their convergence into a twelve-minute piece becomes questionable. It has come to the point where the narrative in this piece is no longer about a Swiss nationalist, but rather goes as follows: a beautiful opening by the cello octet, a heroic voice emerges amid the sound of seemingly "absolute music"; a storm breaks, rain and thunder come from angles and a fight ensues; a rooster announces a sunrise (actually that part isn't in the music, but we can imagine it just as well by substituting an "ahhhh, that tune is in this piece" sound from the audience) and we hear birds singing; "hi-ho silver!" and the Lone Ranger marches off to triumph. Yet despite this seeming devaluation of the poetics of the music, it oddly unified the entire concert: the performance became about packaging and juxtaposing.

This was true whether it concerned the disparate differences between the cellist, Lynn Harrell, and the orchestra in the Lutoslawski Concerto (such a fine performance demands its own article, which space does not allow for here) or the numerous adventures told in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." Perhaps only in this context can the music be heard at its finest.

The largest surprise of the evening was the popularity of the orchestra's assistant conductor, William Eddins, a surprise that perhaps is not as large when one reflects the high degree of musicality in his presentation. Those who are eager to see this for themselves can catch Eddins performing Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat"—an eclectic mix of ragtime jazz and the post-tonal language found in Petrushka. This week, Zubin Mehta will lead the orchestra and various vocalists in a concert performance of Part II of Berlioz's infrequently heard opera "The Trojans." And finally, this Sunday, Murray Perahia will perform Beethoven's C minor variations and Schubert's B-flat Sonata. More information can be found at www.cso.org.