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April 4, 2003

Hearing it twice doesn't make it nice: MusicNOW fails

The concert which took place the evening of March 19 at Symphony Center confirmed what apparently all but 400 of the concert-going public anticipated; the program was mediocre. Part of the MusicNOW series, which presents works by today's composers in performances by Chicago Symphony musicians, the concert attempted to educate as it entertained its audience. To that end, all but the last work on the program were performed twice; after the first play-through the composer would say a few words about his work, and then the performance would be repeated. The format provided a rare opportunity for both listener and composer. Most often with new music the audience can only listen naively, with no prior knowledge of the work's trajectory or even its musical language, thus limiting the level on which the audience can react to the work. The potential benefits of this mode of presentation are also, however, inherent risks, for if the second hearing is not a superior musical experience to the first, the work is proven a failure. Such was the outcome of the presentation for this reviewer-though I appreciated the opportunity to identify what made some works bad, and others less so.

A showcase of English composers, the program began with Simon Holt's work Lilith, written in 1990. The piece seemed designed to make it as difficult as possible for the musicians to make sounds worthy of the term music. Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh overcame the challenge most admirably, playing soaring lines with direction despite the sonic chaos surrounding him. Holt wrote gratuitous, technically difficult passages for every instrument, maximizing the effort required by the musicians while minimizing the musical payoff. The rhythmic complexity of his writing achieved the same result. Sir Andrew Davis conducted admirably, but was obviously engrossed in counting out measures and the notational events which his conducting reflected and which were important for the musicians in terms of their staying together, had seemingly no relationship to musical events such as the beginning of a new idea or an arrival point. Technical, rhythmic and notational challenges are well and good in the service of music, but Holt seemed to treat them as ends in themselves.

In discussing his works, Bernard Rands shared with the audience his belief that profundity can be found in simple forms of expression. A welcome concept after the Holt; it was perhaps only in contrast to Holt that one might consider Rands's work simple. The Chicago Symphony Singers performed three songs by Rands, and each one-all an improvement over Holt-proved to be better than the one that came before it. Two songs, "My Dove" and "Silently she's coming," were from Rands's song cycle Canti d'amor, written in 1991. "My Dove" might have been nice had it not proven too difficult to sing-the voices were asked to converge on familiar harmonies from disparate places, making it difficult for the singers to hear and that difficulty with pitch audible to the audience. "Silently she's coming" seemed much more suited to voices, a bouncy, dance-like song. The third song, "My Child," was taken from a larger work, apokryphos, for both chorus and orchestra, to be premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Singers this May. While still far from harmonically simple, the song seemed to have a more straightforward logic than the previous two, which permitted the singers to express the tension which inhered in the music as opposed to the tension which inhered in the stress of performing it.

Julian Anderson's "Alhambra Fantasy," the major work on the program and the only one not to be repeated, closed the evening. While every piece on the program had an extra-musical concept upon which it was based and which the music was meant to evoke, only "Alhambra Fantasy" did so overtly, with assorted percussion representing the hammering and banging of the building of the Alhambra Palace. Anderson did not choose, however, to incorporate traditional Spanish music into his depiction of the palace, choosing instead to use his own musical vocabulary to evoke images of the palace and its surrounding landscape. While I consider the absence of Spanish musical flavor a missed opportunity, Anderson succeeded in conveying the palace's grandeur and mystique. In comparison to the works that preceded it, "Alhambra Fantasy" was both compositionally strong and musically enjoyable. It would not have seemed so exceptional on these counts, however, if it had been placed on a better program. It is no wonder that new music is marginalized to Wednesday night concerts when it is conceived of as an intellectual exercise and not a sonic experience. While Rands and Anderson both achieved moments in their works worth being heard, the very format of the concert emphasized the intellectual nature of the music. There is value in performing music written for the reasoning faculty first and the auditory second, but its place is in academic institutions that generate and sustain writing, not Symphony Center.