Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

From the podium to the piano, the Argentine-born Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim has been a better-than-average champion of 20th-century music at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducting a respectable fifteen world premieres and eight U.S. premieres since 1991 and earning the ensemble the 1999 ASCAP/Morton Gould Award for innovative programming. Though he is a skillful technician and interpreter of the modern and recent, as critic Bernard Jacobson has pointed out, ”it is in the institutional context that his commitment has had some of its most substantial results.” Consider the following:

  • Barenboim has strongly supported the CSO’s composer-in-residence program, premiering works by its resident composers Augusta Read Thomas. He recently announced the renewal of Thomas’s residency for an unprecedented five years and three new commissions. Following her previous four-year term, her extended residency will be the longest period a composer will have held the post.
  • He has been a proponent of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s annual “First Hearing” composition competition. It is open to all composers, 35 years old or younger who were born in or study in the United States.
  • In 1995 Barenboim installed Pierre Boulez as the CSO’s principal guest conductor. Boulez has since led six world premieres and two U.S. premieres with the orchestra and appears annually with the orchestra for four subscription weeks, which are always teeming with 20th-century works.
  • Barenboim has been an assiduous conductor of Boulez’s own music, premiering Le visage nuptial (1991), Dérive 3 (1992), Notations VII for Orchestra (1999) and next season, Mémoriale (2001).

An examination of Barenboim’s programs suggests that he responds most readily to complex, even difficult strands of modern music. Music of the Second Viennese School and American composer Elliott Carter comprises the central ingredient in his 20th-century programming. With the exception of works by John Corigliano and Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Barenboim has been publicly skeptical of the broad-gestured, neo-romantic works in favor at other major U.S. orchestras.

In remarks during a meeting with the CSO Board of Directors in February 2001, Barenboim summed up his approach to new music as such:

“We have two equally important points to take care of. The first is to provide the highest possible excellence in the performance of well-known and established repertoire. Equally important is to maintain the interest and curiosity for the music of today. It would be easy to say ‘well if you think contemporary music is so important, why don’t you take X number of concerts and program only contemporary music?’ I think this is wrong, because you can only establish for yourself whether a new piece has something to say and speaks to you when you put it in juxtaposition with the Eroica or a Brahms symphony. This is why I do not believe in the contemporary music ghetto.”

A way out of the ghetto has been sought through an increasing interest in thematic programming. This season’s ”Mahler and Modernism” series drew critical and audience raves, and is to be followed in autumn 2001 with “Wagner and Modernism.” This series will include the U.S. premiere of Carter’s Cello Concerto alongside such CSO staples as orchestral excerpts from Gotterdammerung and Act I of Die Walkure. Also featured will be the U.S. premiere of a piano concerto by young German composer Isabel Mundry.

Somewhat less impressive is Barenboim’s track record in nurturing American composers beyond Thomas and Carter. His discography with the orchestra – some twenty recordings for DG and Teldec – has leaned heavily on standard repertoire. Most are works that his predecessors Sir Georg Solti and even Fritz Reiner gave their signature to with the CSO and are still available in the catalogue. A welcome addition arrives in September 2001, when Teldec releases a disk combining Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Debussy’s La mer, and Pierre Boulez’s Notations VII for Orchestra (the label’s first CSO recording utilizing DVD audio technology).

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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