Playing to the Crowd
Art fights audience and manages a draw
April 17, 1991
This appeared in the Comment section of Dan Haley’s excellent Oak Park weekly, Wednesday Journal. The published title was "“Sinfonietta’s razor-sharp precision slices through distractions.” That's one way to put it, I guess. I ran the piece as an Illinois Times column on April 25 under the title, "Playing to the crowd," which I give it here.
Fastidious reader might wish to know that yesterday's Rosary College in River Forest is today's Dominican University.
They didn't do "Danny Boy" as an encore, which may have earned the orchestra an extra bit of appreciative applause from an audience that by then didn't want to hear anything played with a brogue. It was nearing the end of a long St. Patrick's Day weekend when the Chicago Sinfonietta tuned up for the last of this season's concerts at Rosary College. The Sinfonietta is one of Chicago's newest ensembles, and already one of its more admired. This is not always a guarantee of quality—Chicago loves the Bears too—but at least the conductor of this team didn't try to sell us Chevies between numbers. [Out-of-towners should know that this is a Mike Ditka joke.]
Going to concerts these days is an undependable pleasure for reasons that have nothing to do with music. The manners of the U.S. concert-goer makes going to hear Mozart like going to the movies, even at such decorous venues as Rosary College. A symphony performance in Springfield this winter was stopped in mid-movement by the conductor, who chastised two conversationalists who came in with the valet parking crowd. Audiences used to boo the musicians; today the musicians are booing the audiences.
Nothing so untoward marred this, the Sinfonietta's last concert of the current season at Rosary, where it is in residence. (The Sinfonietta will play one more concert at Orchestra Hall on May 15.) Sure, by the second half people had mastered the trick of making the reclinable seats squeak, and the usual coughers has crawled from their sickbeds to attend. They were joined by some of the rest of us after the intermission; the doors to the lobby were propped open during the break, admitting great streams of tobacco smoke into the hall. The smoke created a charmingly authentic pub atmosphere in the auditorium, although it would take more than a few rounds of Harp to turn Bartok into a sing-along.
One dutiful mother patiently instructed her t-shirted son in the art of unwrapping a cellophane-wrapped snack v-e-r-y slowly. For a minute or two during the Bartok I feverishly fingered the big rubber band I had in my coat pocket. I had a clear shot at the back of his head, but I worried that the soloist, hearing him squawk, might mistake him for a disapproving critic and abandon the stage. Besides, Mom looked capable of finishing the Bartok using me as a bow. I like quiet during concerts but I'm not a radical on the subject.
The irritations of the few would not have mattered if the music not been so fine. The 32-member ensemble played with precision and balance. The "Romanian Rhapsody" is a famous show‑off piece for an orchestra, and the Sinfonietta tossed it off with verve. (A gorgeous ten-year-old in front of me beamed at her mother at the end of it and said over the applause, "I liked that one!" which is the whole point of taking kids to concerts.)
The rhythmically demanding "An American Port of Call" by Adolphus Hailstork was a late substitution; perhaps as a result, it sounded under-rehearsed, with the players doing more reading than playing. When the Trib's John Von Rhein heard the Sinfonietta and soloist Tian Ying play Franck's "Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra" he used words like polished, sparkling, refinement, and lyric, which shows that even the Tribune gets some things right.
According to the program notes, the Sinfonietta has two purposes. In addition making music, the orchestra aims to "promote racial and ethnic diversity on all levels, from Board and staff to audience and orchestra members." Sophisticated whites were never the only audience for the classics but they are by far the largest one. Orchestral music in the U.S. in particular has become a hobby of the educated elites of the monied, mostly conservative establishment. (On the North Shore they know their Tchaikovsky as well as they know their capital gains rates and for the same reason: Both are music to their ears.)
One learns to be wary of arts groups with political programs, but in this case art and politics serve each other well. A commitment to musical diversity means scheduling seldom‑heard works by people who are not Germans. Some believers of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven trinity would consider the Sinfonietta's choice of a work by the Belgian Franck to be open-minded to the point of promiscuity.
A commitment to musical diversity also means showcasing soloists such as the up-and-coming Chinese pianist Ying and the been-top-for-twenty-years violist Marcus Thompson, who has appeared as soloist and guest with most of the major orchestras and string quartets in the U.S. The Sinfonietta's conductor and music director is Paul Freeman, who worked his way up to River Forest standards by conducting and recording in London, Zagreb, Dallas, Detroit, Helsinki, Cleveland, and New York.
The number of virtuosi from Asia have convincingly dispelled the notion that you have to be European to play European music. Or listen to it. The Sinfonietta boasts a "director of audience development," an "audience development consultant," and an "audience development assistant." Audience development presumably means persuading people that going to an orchestra concert does not doom one to sitting next to bankers snoring through Brahms.
Freeman's programs help. Classical music is not usually thought of as "ethnic" in the same way that, say, jazz or blues is. But Sunday's Sinfonietta program included works by Bartok and Enescu (Hungarian and Romanian, respectively) whose writing was based on those countries' melancholy and rhythmically complex traditional music. (Bartok in fact would be remembered as a musicologist if he'd never written a note.)
It all won a rousing endorsement from the audience. (There were a few empty seats, no doubt because some of the absent regulars were attending St. Patrick's Day seminars and taking their culture by the glass.) For a brief moment I thought I had another shot at the wrapper-crinkling boy in the lobby—a rubber band upside his head would have added to the diversity of his musical experience all right—but a middle-aged nun stood in the line of fire.
I spent the walk brooding about the differences between the artists and the audiences of this world. Beethoven would have plunked that kid, nun or no nun, for Music's sake. ●