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Chillin' of a Lesser God

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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

at Petrillo Music Shell

September 21

Is Daniel Barenboim facing rough waters ahead?

Even before he was appointed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's highest artistic post, the Argentinean-born conductor was getting a bad rap in the local press. One commentator attributed his strong candidacy to cronyism (the cronies being Georg Solti and CSO's top administrator, Henry Fogel); another questioned his track record. Taking over the baton from Solti would not be an easy task for any mortal, but the youthful Barenboim seems particularly vulnerable to criticism. Despite Solti's faults--a conservative streak plus quite a few more quirks, in my opinion--he did transform the orchestra into a fabulous and prestigious sound-and-money machine. In the process, thanks to an effective PR campaign, he was turned into the Teflon maestro, an Olympian (London-based) figure impervious to bad reviews. Naturally his exalted, untouchable status spells trouble for any successor: the city's critical establishment, long deprived of a target, is now more than ready to pounce on a lesser god. Solti's lengthy tenure also casts a giant shadow--Barenboim must win the affection of persnickety, nostalgia-prone CSO loyalists.

On this last count, history is definitely not on Barenboim's side. Twice before the heir to a longtime CSO music director has been subjected to unfavorable comparisons by critics--especially the Tribune's acerbic Claudia Cassidy--and concertgoers alike. In the end, as hard as they tried, neither Desire Defauw (who took over after the death of Frederick Stock) nor Jean Martinon (after Fritz Reiner) could overcome the city's predisposition to dislike them; both were transitional figures, their tenures lasting less than five years. Already the rumblings of dissatisfaction with Barenboim are beginning to echo those leveled against his two unfortunate predecessors.

To be sure, some of the reservations about Barenboim have merit. His globe-trotting career hasn't been a model of consistency. A child prodigy trained in Israel, he got on the piano-recital circuit when barely a teenager; he conducted his first major orchestra when he was still in his early 20s. Always technically brilliant and assured, he often comes across as a coldly mechanical interpreter. It's telling that for every recorded performance of his, whether as conductor or soloist, I can name at least one by a contemporary that is better. As a renowned musician who can pick his associates and venues, he vacillates more than he should between the mediocre and the memorable. Though he improved the Orchestre de Paris--in his previous stint as leader--what I heard of them still sounded wimpy and second-rate; and then there was the scandal of his forced resignation from the Bastille Opera. It's no wonder the anti-Barenboim faction in this city has felt justified in voicing its opposition. (The other candidate was Claudio Abbado; Michael Tilson Thomas, arguably the most exciting American-born conductor since Leonard Bernstein and my choice, did not make the short list.) Yet the chameleonlike Barenboim is capable of surprises. When paired with the right colleagues, he can be very good indeed. With the CSO, more often than not lately, he has fashioned compelling performances of German romantic masterpieces. With violinist Itzhak Perlman last season, he was marvelously eloquent--and warm--in the Mozart sonatas. I say let's give Barenboim a chance to experiment and to ease into his newfound maturity.

For the time being, however, everyone has to wait. After all the careful preparations for the post-Solti era and the symphony's second century, the musicians--to the surprise of most of them and everyone else--decided to go on strike the day before the symphony's opening night. The strike, which now looks sure to last a couple of months, is over economic issues, yet for Barenboim it must have dampened high hopes: the fall season would have included premieres of significant works by Berio, Boulez, and Shapey. Worse yet, in New York Kurt Masur, the new chieftain of the New York Philharmonic, has been the cynosure of a monthlong lovefest--getting the same kind of attention the CSO management had planned for Barenboim.

The symphony's 101st season, which was to have opened in Orchestra Hall with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, was launched instead outdoors, in a lighthearted, still celebratory mood. The concert, billed as a "thank you" from the CSO to all Chicagoans (no admission was charged), was held in Grant Park last Saturday evening. The program, mostly overtures and dances, paid tribute to the city's multiethnic heritage. Kicking off the fast-paced, high-spirited musical tour was the overture to Verdi's La forza del destino (Italy). Among the other stops were Hungary (via Brahms), Czechoslovakia (Dvorak), and Poland (a bouncy mazurka by Moniuszko punctured by crashing cymbals). Percy Grainger's arrangement of the "Londonderry Air" gave us a whiff of the Emerald Isle, and a tango-flavored excerpt from Estancia by Ginastera reminded us of the conductor's Argentinean roots. The thunderous, hair-raising Ride of the Valkyries that closed the first half confirmed once again the CSO's vaunted mastery of Wagner's music.

Opening the second half was Adolphus Hailstork's Celebration!, a peppy Broadway curtain raiser spiced by clacking castanets. The evening's only heavyweight was the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. For purists, of course, listening to only the last movement is like reading War and Peace from page 500: you hear the work's thematic ideas in full force without ever having heard them stated. The chorus (prepared by Margaret Hillis) and the four soloists (Tina Kiberg, Waltraud Meier, Jon Fredric West, and Robert Holl) under Barenboim's animated exhortations sang with jubilant fervor. The orchestra--especially its wind section--shared ringingly in the effusive pleading for universal brotherhood. It wasn't the most spiritual "Ode to Joy" I've ever heard, but it was rousing enough for me to stand up clapping at the end of the performance.

After a lengthy standing ovation from the audience (of more than 13,000), the musicians returned the favor with two encores. "My Kind of Town"--a predictable choice that induced squeals of delight--was enlivened by Larry Combs's mesmerizing solo turns on the clarinet. Shortly after Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" started, Barenboim strolled off the podium and disappeared from sight, leaving the musicians to fend for themselves. They carried on with gusto, seemingly oblivious to the maestro's absence. The gesture was meant to be a joke, yet it conjured up an unintended disquieting image: that of a rudderless but sturdy ship sailing into its second century.

Welcome aboard, Mr. Barenboim.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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