Of Coattails, Hangers-On and Human Zoos

Dan Albertson

[March 2024.]

[A billet-doux of the inverse sort, another rap of the head against the pillars of one institution or another. For you, Romeo Talento, in profound gratitude, and for you, Jeffery Kwok Ka Yong 郭嘉勇, with the utmost delight.]

Back in Chicago, back to the fabled yesteryear. Even for short visits, the feeling of a former home is cozy, familiar and alien and shopworn and novel all in one sheaf.

If any organization on Earth could answer to the epithets “familiar” and “shopworn,” it must be the orchestra, and this one more than most. Listening to the orchestra’s latest traversal of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, or rather allowing the mind to wander as is its gift and indeed expectation in such circumstances, the hallucination of zoos took over.

In the cage, dressed in suit and tie, was Gil Shaham, here not to demonstrate his craft or woo or surprise, but rather to cash a check, and a handsome one, while the Radcliffe-Browns in the audience gawked through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope. Behind the proscenium bars is a man whose soloist fee is more than a middle-class income in one year. Patrons in the pursuit of reassurance prop up this system. Can any aspect of this degraded spectacle be considered healthy? At what point does music, and the performance of music, become an act of commerce and not an act of art? How many reproductions would be one too many? When does habit replace discovery?

Surrounding the Mendelssohn were Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski, both played with more panache and conviction. The following week audiences had the chance to hear a young, more agile, less celebrated, and cheaper soloist in a concerto by Bohuslav Martinů that no one would likely know. Whatever its musical merits, is this chance not a more holistic framework for spectators and musicians alike, for the longevity of the orchestral experience itself? Are we not allowed to hear the music instead of the person playing it? If music is not about setting off on an adventure and escaping the commonplace, then what is it about? If concerts are no longer occasions, what is the point of continuing? Hearing Martinů and youth is an occasion, and one to be cherished. Hearing Mendelssohn and habitude is a chore, and one to be avoided.

Thinking of the first concert, was the Mendelssohn filling necessary? If yes, why not one of the symphonies, which have more edifying and less hackneyed music? Is the value of an orchestra its ability to replicate, almost as a mechanical clock, or is its value to advocate, to promote, to champion, to challenge? How many Lutosławskis do audiences not hear so that Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn or Yo-Yo Ma can pad their already-hefty wads of lucre? So long as orchestras seek, and hire, and fund, both the machinery and the select few soloists who are their marionettes, while depriving countless others of opportunities and while simultaneously bemoaning a lack of cash in their yearly operating budgets, there can be no sympathy for the financial graves that they themselves dig.

* * *

Susanna Mälkki had the misfortune of following two weeks with Jakub Hrůša in Chicago, true enough, but supposing that her predecessor had been a hologram, the comparison would not have been any kinder to her. The two represent the same generation, with profound differences in results.

Hrůša, more conservative in overall taste, nonetheless excels in making the orchestra excel in repertory not close to its core. The Strauss – Mendelssohn – Lutosławski concert was week one. Week two was Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra – Martinů – Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin (suite only, which was a pity, as the wordless chorus is a moment worth the shivers). Precision, verve, swings of dynamics, tenderness, splendor abounded.

Mälkki, who rose to prominence at the helm of Ensemble Intercontemporain, embodies a common problem of conductors who move from specialists to generalists. Excelling in contemporary music often means nothing more than ensuring that everyone finishes at roughly the same time. Without reference to other performances of the same work, there is nothing to be said about the quality of the interpretation. This barrier does not exist in standard repertory, where scores and recordings, and therefore means of forming judgment, are in ample supply. Saddling Mälkki with the Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler approached disaster territory. Her tempi plodded, and ensemble suffered noticeably. She gave inadequate space for the small voice of Fang Ying 方颖 to soar. The performance hit the one-hour mark. Whether her dearth of imagination is a result of inadequate technique (her beat is almost impossible to follow), or poor ideas poorly realized (does she have any?), is difficult to discern, but in a world of ever-widening choices, who would choose her first? Or, unkindly, twelfth? Music-making that is tepid, hesitant, dull? No, thanks.

* * *

Music is a many-problemed kingdom. New music is its own phylum. At the level of class or order or genus or species, the problems become myriad.

Felipe Lara, in Chicago recently for a seminar, demonstrates one extreme. Lowell Liebermann, in Chicago for a world première, demonstrates another. The former writes outdated blandness masquerading as modernity while the latter writes tonal music with a lack of melodic gift and a penchant for the obvious. Both approaches are flawed down to their fundaments, both are dead ends of unforgiving mediocrity. The future looks drabber and greyer all the time.

Lara shared his Double Concerto for Claire Chase, who has never met a swoop and swirl that is too distasteful, and Esperanza Spalding, whose talents were reduced to plucking and cooing. The orchestral writing showed a man wading far beyond his depth, replete with microtonal variants that produced almost no audible effect, a harmonic sameness and rhythmic squareness. Who was the conductor? Susanna Mälkki, of course. Like meets like.

The early Flute Sonata was key to gaining Liebermann gravitas among the neo-tonal composers more than three decades ago. While one may wish for either development, or at least broadening, the new Flute Concerto No. 2, Op. 142, for Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, displayed neither, unless one counts quasi-minimalistic string and marimba passages as novel. All right, it is a flute concerto, and flute concertos do not exist to save the world, yet one would hope for more than a 24′ film score.

Herein lies the crisis of new music. Too many modernists and conservatives alike regurgitate what went before, each time with less and less likelihood of success. Any kind of music, any approach to aesthetics, can be made valid in the hands of a gifted composer. Style as much as invention is lacking. Finding any sparkle in the tumbleweeds gets tougher and tougher. In the search for saviors, none is to be found.


[Photo of Symphony Center by ajay_suresh – Symphony Center – Chicago Symphony Orchestra, CC BY 2.0,]

, , , , , , ,
[Previous Article: (Dis)Arrangements 17: Brahms]