February 11, 2005

A bone to pick with stilted classicists, our writer pens an open letter to the CSO

To the Management and Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

I have noticed that for the past month, the programming at Orchestra Hall has been directed to some specific end, and I feel as though that purpose has not exclusively been great music-making. The pieces do not seem to have been selected purely for their merits as "music you love." It is not my foremost desire to make accusations, but the repertoire is wide, so let us ask a gentler question: What's behind your bills?

An artistic planning meeting at your internationally lauded organization almost certainly comes down to ideology. If you are choosing pieces because they move you, you are imposing your subjective experience on others—and I'm all for that! I trust you, deeply. However, if you are picking pieces based on the numbers (sales, records, what you imagine people love), then you are imposing a different ideology.

I see two possibilities for the second ideology. First, you program pieces for my education: the subtle connections between works and their composers, maybe even clever key relationships you would like to show me. You take a didactic approach, because maybe you think that if I knew more, I'd love your music.

I would prefer to believe that your programming stems from your desire to teach me, condescending though it is. But I am more afraid of a second possibility: that you fear and hate me, the way that a hostess fears and hates her guests. You spitefully program Haydn, because you preemptively believe I will reject anything but your most bland cucumber sandwiches.

During the last month you have—on nine separate occasions—performed the following program:

Haydn Symphony # A

Bartók Piano Concerto # C


Haydn Symphony # B

On another six occasions, you have replaced one Haydn symphony with a work by Boulez, to whom you are now paying "tribute."

Are you trying to show the fascinating similarity between a Haydn symphony and a Bartók piano concerto? I can say, albeit with layman ears, that at the very least there is no connection between the Haydn symphonies Nos. 1, 86, 99, 104 and the Bartók piano concertos Nos. 2 and 3.

Are you worried that I won't like the crunchy harmonies and unpulsed rhythms of modern music? Both times I attended your pre-packaged program, the Bartók was the only piece worth hearing. And to your credit, you played him with distinction, flair, and passion. Bravo.

Here you might gently remind me that I am talking about my own taste: Speak for yourself, mister! And to you, my dear straw men and women, I would respond, as might the Russsians: Xa Xa! There I've got you! If your audience's taste stems from their likes (I like italics, for example), then you can connect with them on a human level. You don't need to worry about offending them, or educating them; you can play music that you like. Your Haydn symphonies sounded bored. You don't like Haydn, either, so don't play him.

My roommate and I are working on Non-Violent Communication™. Let's put theory into practice:

Mesdames et Messieurs of the CSO, when you program idle, trite, and useless music for my education and protection, I feel condescended to, because I have a need for honesty. Would you be willing to program music that you love, so that I may love it?

When you do A, I feel B, because I have a need for C. Would you be willing to do X?