May 23, 2003

Composer fails to deliver good music on command

Commissioning a piece of music is always a risk, as the commissioner never knows what he is going to get. When the work is destined to be performed by a major orchestra, selecting an established and esteemed composer seems a reasonable strategy for minimizing this risk. But as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's world premiere performances of Bernard Rands's apokryphos demonstrated, it is no guarantee.

Rands's work for the orchestra, chorus, and soprano soloist was underwritten by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund in memory of Margaret Hillis, Chicago Symphony Chorus founder and director from 1957 to 1994. The fact that Rands is the husband of CSO composer in residence Augusta Read Thomas might raise legitimate ethical concerns. However, Rands is a well-established and respected composer in his own right. While certainly not the only active composer with experience and interest in writing for voices and instruments (Jonathan Harvey's Song Offerings, performed in Mandel Hall two weeks ago, proved him well qualified in this area) Rands's previous work made him a natural choice for the commission.

Rands established his formal approach for song cycles in the early '80s with Canti del lunatici and the Pulitzer Prize--winning Canti del sole. Unlike Romantic Era composers like Schumann and Wolf who explored a single poet's oeuvre per song cycle, Rands creates anthologies around a theme, combining in the same work poems from times and tongues as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Celan, and Dylan Thomas.

While apokryphos is larger than his previous works in its inclusion of chorus, orchestra, and vocal soloist, it continues his anthological approach with the theme of exile. Rands alternates between texts in German by Jewish poets Heinrich Heine, Else Lasker-Schuler, Franz Werfel, Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, and fragments from the Apocrypha in English translation--a text Rands describes as "in exile from the biblical canon"--which assert the Jews' belief and trust in God.

One would not expect a work that approaches exile from the perspective of the Holocaust to be "palatable," but if it is to deliver a message, it must be something we want to listen to and remember, engaging both our ears and our feelings. Once, in its thirty-five minute playing time, apokryphos succeeded in this. At the conclusion of the peaceful a cappella setting of an apocryphal text about the promise of God's help if one keeps hope in Him, the orchestra burst in with a violent dissonance both shocking and frightening. As the disturbance subsided, soprano soloist Angela Denoke began humming, becoming the mother gone insane over the loss of her child, the subject of the Sachs' poem she was then singing.

Difficulty in making sense of apokryphos was probably not the cause of the lukewarm applause the work received Friday night, completely disproportionate to the massive instrumental and vocal forces mobilized for its performance. Even if Rands's atonal language was foreign to some, his musical depictions of text were anything but obscure. The excessive repetition by the chorus of the word "sing" in one of the apocryphal texts--painfully reminiscent of those favorite music class metasongs-was inane.

Where Rands failed was in creating a musical experience to match the profundity of the texts. Instead, his overwrought craftsmanship--his constant exploration of novel orchestral colors such as the rarely-used saxophone, flute flutter tonguing, and vibraphone duets with various instruments--turned the work into a parade of momentarily interesting devices that ultimately distracted from the issues of exile at hand, and precluded the possibility of an organic musical whole. When the strings played col legno, banging the wood of their bows against their strings, it seemed natural and appropriate not as part of a musical story, but as yet another, inevitable way to vary the orchestral texture.

All this makes us wonder if commissions occasionally necessitate and, more importantly, justify inflicting unsatisfactory works on the concert consumer. It's a difficult question, for who is to say whether or not a work is satisfactory? Audiences (i.e. ticket sales) largely decide what gets played on subscription series concerts, and world premieres are certainly an exciting thing for audiences to attend. But considering the exorbitant price of tickets, the aura of the premiere would seem insufficient to keep audiences happy when the work itself turns out to be a disappointment.

One remedy for this situation would be to eliminate the brand-name composers' monopoly on big commissions and replace it with an open market: composers with works in hand competing with each other to have their music played by orchestras, and orchestras competing with each other for the right to premiere the works they like. Then, instead of programming apokryphos because Rands wrote some great music twenty years ago, the CSO might have discovered an exciting, unknown composer. And in my utopian vision, audiences would become increasingly enthusiastic about new music they knew existed not as the result of a patronage system, but because of, and for, them.