Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


My Viennese Summer

Posted in Art,Books,Classical,Fiction,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 28th, 2013

I hope that you had a good summer, wherever and however you spent it. Classes at UChicago start Monday, so let me try to recap my own summer. For me, 2013 was the summer of Vienna, in imagination and reality.

The July 31 free concert by the Grant Park Orchestra in Millennium Park helped get things started. The program consisted of a single piece: the rarely performed Symphony No. 2 by Viennese composer Antonio Bruckner. It’s a delightfully sweet composition, especially in the slow movement, and the performance on a fine summer evening captured it quite gracefully. Mentally I was already walking alongside the Danube, the Blue Danube.

Around the same time, I began my background reading: two fine cultural histories of Vienna: Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 (1980) and Carl E. Schorske’s Fin–de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980). From there, I moved onto Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942), an elegiac memoir of the novelist’s life in Vienna that he completed in exile in South America, the day before he committed suicide. I also read Vienna Idylls, a collection of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s easy to understand why Freud loved Schnitzler: his fiction throbs with repressed desires and unspoken impulses. His characters say one thing, but clearly mean something entirely different. They think they desire one object, but obviously covet the exact opposite. Modernity in a nutshell.

On the morning of August 6, we arrived at the airport in Vienna, took the express train into the city and then the subway to Graben. The moment we emerged at the top of the escalator from the Stephansplatz underground and into the ancient plaza was stunning–as was the heat. We checked into our hotel and began a dazed four-day visit. The highlights for me were visiting Berggasse 19–the apartment where Sigmund Freud lived and worked from 1891 until 1938, when he went into exile after the Nazis took over Austria–and the Prater amusement park, home of the famous Ferris wheel. I’ve always loved carnivals and fairs (a few weeks after Vienna we made our annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair), and I especially liked Prater because it was the only time during our visit to Austria that we mingled with working class, immigrants, teen-agers: ordinary folks, out like us for a good time on a pleasant summer night.

Another highlight was the Secession museum, where we spent half an hour in the company of Klimt’s Beethoven freize.
the-beethoven-frieze-the-hostile-powers-left-part-detail.jpg!Blog
The Secession was also hosting an exhibit of the work of Thomas Locher, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s writings on Mauss and the gift–which have been enormously influential on my own scholarship. We had to rush through that exhibit, though, as the museum was closing. After exiting we wandered through the outdoor night market that lies just outside the museum.

In the two months since we returned from Vienna, I find myself stumbling into references to Vienna everywhere. Summer’s gone, but I’m still walking alongside the Danube.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part Two)

July brought many exciting developments. I was promoted to full Professor and became chair of my department at the University of Chicago. The Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon came out from Byakuya Shobo. At around the same time, the discovery I helped make of some previously unknown 1950 Sacramento concert recordings by Misora Hibari, Kasagi Shizuko, Yamaguchi Yoshiko and many other Japanese singing stars became big news in Japan. I was apparently a featured item on television “wide shows” for a couple of days; I’m told that at least one of the shows introduced me with a photograph that was not actually of me. The Japanese edition of the book was well received, too; dozens of newspapers and magazines ran favorable reviews.

The whole family flew to Tokyo in late July. I spent a couple of days doing press interviews at my publishers’ offices in Takadanobaba. On July 29, Satoko and I were able to participate in one of the largest anti-nuclear demonstrations of the year, a march that started from Hibiya Park and ended up surrounding the Diet building. We celebrated the children’s birthdays up in Sendai with Satoko’s parents. With the help of a reporter from the Kyodo Tsushin wire service, I was able to get a copy of the 1950 wire recording of her Sacramento concert to 92-year-old Yamaguchi Yoshiko, who gave an interview about how delighted she was to hear it. As a result, once again I showed up in newspapers across Japan.

We returned to Chicago in early August. I recorded a segment for public radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which was broadcast nationally later in the month (you can listen online here). We brought the whole family to a terrific play,”The Death of Harry Houdini,” at the House Theater. We ran up to Minnesota again to celebrate what would have been my father’s 75th birthday on August 15, and while there I saw another ballgame at Target Field. I also got to see one of my old favorite local bands, the Flamin’ Oh’s, play a show at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. Back in Chicago at the end of the month, we attended the opening night “Tribute to Ella” with Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee, and Spider Saloff at the Chicago Jazz Festival. I returned again on the last day of the festival to catch stellar sets by the Steve Coleman Group and Pierre Dørge And The New Jungle Orchestra–two more favorite musical discoveries of the year.

In September things started gearing up in my new role as department chair, but on a stormy night we saw Bruce Springsteen give a fine concert up at Wrigley Field, and when the Twins swung through town early in the month I ran over to New Comiskey Park to take in a game. Late in the month I filled my car with grad students and drove to Kalamazoo for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs meeting at Western Michigan University.

Classes started in October. I taught two seminars this past fall–one on Japanese literary discourses of “furusato” (hometown), the other on Japanese cultures of the Cold War. As usual, I learned a great deal from the students in both. Extracurricular activities slowed down as I resumed full-time teaching, of course, but I still managed to get out now and then. In early October, I saw a nice set by guitarist Wayne Krantz at Martyr’s and later in the month caught an intriguing performance by shamisen composer Kimura Shunsuke. In October, I attended the Association for Japanese Literary Studies meeting at Ohio State, reconnecting with many old friends and meeting some new ones. I also enjoyed the opportunity to make a presentation about the 1950 wire recordings at the annual Humanities Day celebration here on campus in Hyde Park.

We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, with me preparing the turkey as usual. In December, we enjoyed a show by Leo Kottke up at SPACE in Evanston, as well as a terrific performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the CSO. I made another trip to Los Angeles to give a talk at UCLA and to film an interview about the 1950 wire recording of Misora Hibari for a television special which was broadcast in Japan on the BS-TBS network on December 7. We spent Christmas with family in Minnesota, quiet and relaxing. On Boxing Day, we went ice skating with a big group of my cousins and their children.

Later today we’ll bring our 2012 cultural calendar to a close by attending the acclaimed production of “Annie” at the Paramount Theater in Illinois: the last few years, our family has made a tradition of attending a musical in the week between Christmas and New Years. We also have tickets to see the opening night of Buddy Guy’s annual stand at his own blues club downtown later this week, and we’re off to Second City a few days after that for some comedy.

It really has been a blessed year for us: writing this up has helped remind me how lucky I am. I’m surrounded by a supportive family, wonderful friends and colleagues, students who keep me on my toes, and a city that bustles with creativity and energy. As usual, I have compiled a long list of New Years’ resolutions, but I won’t bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I am looking forward to 2013.

Let me end by wishing you joy, peace, and health in 2013. Thanks for stopping by.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part One)

I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?

A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.

The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.

In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.

On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).

In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.

On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.

Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.

As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.

July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….

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Janáček and Schoenberg, too

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the December 5th, 2010

We went to Symphony Center last night to see Pierre Boulez conduct an exhilarating program with the Chicago Symphony. It was the kind of performance that leaves you with goosebumps, even the morning after.

The evening opened with the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s 1899 composition, “Transfigured Night.” I know this primarily in its original format, as a piece for a string sextet. With five or six times that many strings thrown into the mix the piece not surprisingly feels fuller. In particular, the brief dissonant section in the second movement (I think it’s the second movement, anyhow) hit with greater force, setting a sharper contrast with the lush Brahms-like lyricism that characterizes the rest of the piece. It’s a lovely work, and the orchestra played with great precision and beauty.

After the intermission came the Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a stirring epic that should be much better known than it is. A barbaric yawp that sounds more like fire and brimstone than anything you’d expect to hear in church (especially on the maniacal pipe organ solo that comprises the penultimate movement, played last night with appropriately over-the-top intensity by Paul Jacobs), it employs a full choir, pipe organ, four vocal soloists, and an enormous orchestra. You have the feeling, in other words, the you’re getting your money’s worth when you see this one performed live.

Boulez led the massed musicians at a brisk pace, and everyone performed brilliantly. Seeing it played live, I came to realize how the work is largely structured around a dialogue between the chorus and the brass section: they pick up each other’s lines, interrupt one another, echo each other’s chord patterns.

There was a small bit of drama in last night’s performance. I happened to be watching vocal soloist Mikhail Petrenko sitting in his chair, obviously getting mentally prepared to stand up and take his first solo. Suddenly, his foot slid back under his seat and knocked over the glass of water that was sitting there. He quickly reached down to set it back upright. I kept wondering if they would bring him a new glass between movements, but they didn’t. I also wondered if tenor Lance Ryan might slide his glass of water over to the other side of his chair to share with his bass partner, but that didn’t happen either. The other three vocalists kept sipped elegantly at their glasses of water to moisten their throats between their singing parts, but poor Petrenko had to go without. At any rate, he got through the rest of the performance without incident and sounded fine.

Boulez carries himself on stage with reserve, employing body language that I can only describe as charming. It’s hard to believe you are watching one of the legendary firebrands of modern classical music when you see him conduct. Perhaps he’s mellowed at age 85.

At any rate, a night at the symphony to remember. Both Andrew Patner (Sun-Times) and John von Rhein (Tribune) gave enthusiastic reviews to the program, as well.

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Whirlwind

Posted in Classical,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 3rd, 2010

Last night we attend my daughter’s high school winter concert here in Chicago. She sings in the choir, but we also enjoyed sets by the school orchestra, chamber ensemble, band and jazz ensemble. The band played a very striking piece I’d never heard before: “Whirlwind,” composed by Jodie Blackshaw. The worktakes a number of important elements from twentieth-century avant-garde classical styles (aleatory passages, nonconventional instruments, offbeat instructions to the players) and briiliantly arranges them into a form that is fully accessible to an amateur youth orchestra. The kids seemed to enjoy playing it last night.

I snooped around today a bit and came up with this website from the publishers of the score. The site informs us that Blackshaw won the Frank Ticheli Composition Contest with it. On YouTube, I came up with video of a performance by the Singapore American School Sixth Grade Band. It’s just cool to see an ambitious composition like this enter the musical repertoire of high school bands.

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This and That

Posted in Classical,Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the November 5th, 2010

It’s been a jumbled week, with little time for arranging thoughts into anything so orderly as sentences.

A week ago Thursday, I made my first visit of the season to Symphony Center to see Jaap van Zweden lead the local favorites in a very fine program of Mahler, Shostakovich, and John Luther Adams. Both Andrew Patner of the Sun-Times and and John von Rhein of the Tribune loved the Shostakovich but had reservations about the Adams and the Mahler, but I heard it the other way around. My usual bad taste, of course.

Adams’ “Dark Waves” was a hypnotic piece, a single sustained wave of sound that develops details of texture and dynamics across its twelve minutes. Adams was in the house and took a bow with the orchestra after the piece. The Mahler consisted of four songs from his “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” in which the composer wears his charming hat, as opposed to his bombastic helmet (think, for example, of the last movement from his Fourth Symphony). Measha Brueggergosman was the guest vocalist, and she performed with grace and wit. Patner and von Rhein complained about her vocal chops, but my only fear was that we might all be blinded: she wore a shiny all-platinum dress and I thought somebody might take a flash picture. The program closed with Shostakovich’s magnificent (and seldom played) Symphony No. 8 in C minor. The local newspaper critics both fall over themselves in their rush to praise the performance, but I thought the long first movement was rather perfunctory. It did come to life in the latter half, though, with particularly brilliant performances from the woodwinds.

I’ll be back to see the Chicago Symphony again in early December, when Pierre Boulez conducts Janáček and Schoenberg: more glorious twentieth-century classical. I can’t wait.

In the meanwhile, out there in the world there appears to have been an election of some sort. Why anyone would hand the keys back to the same people who crashed the car two years ago is a mystery to me, but then again democracy always is a little bit mysterious.

David Byrne, in the meanwhile, is marrying folks in NYC. Stew is out on the road, playing gigs (he’ll be here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art next week). And Dave Davies makes it painfully clear that the Kinks won’t be reuniting anytime soon.

Older brother Ray, on the other hand, continues touring in Europe. Let me leave you with some fan video from Sunday night in Paris and Monday night in Amsterdam. Here’s hoping next week is a quiet one, for you and me both.

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Sakamoto Ryuichi at the Vic

Posted in Classical,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2010

Sakamoto Ryuichi played a stunningly beautiful one-man show earlier tonight at the Vic here in Chicago. It was mostly solo piano, although he used a number of electronic effects to add layers of complexity to the music.

The evening opened with an atmospheric number in which Sakamoto strummed directly on the strings inside the piano in accompaniment to a prerecorded quiet soundtrack–something like crickets chirping on a summer night. This was followed by “Hibari,” the first of three duet numbers. There were two pianos on stage, one played directly by Sakamoto, the other played indiirectly–often via prerecorded tracks, but sometimes it seemed as Sakamoto was feeding his own live playing into a kind of sequencer that immediately transferred the pattern to the second piano. “Hibari” is a hypnotic, captivating track from Sakamoto’s latest album, a fine instance of musical minimalism, and it worked wonderfully live.

The set also included a number of Sakamoto’s hits, all rendered solo on the piano — “Amore,” “A Flower is Not a Flower” (also a “virtual duet”), “The Last Emperor,” and (closing the main set) “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence.” Sakamoto is an expressive player: he brought a delicate touch to the numbers, highlighting the details of their musical texture in strikingly beautiful ways. The stage was sparse; there were constant images, mostly abstract, projected on the screen in back.

The audience didn’t quite know how to react to the show at first, and the first several songs were greeted with silence. It was finally after the fifth number (“Amore”) that people started clapping between songs. By the end of the encore, though, they knew what to do: give Sakamoto a rousing standing ovation. Sakamoto loosened up a bit on the three-song encore: he put his body into his playing more than he had in the main set, and it probably helped that the songs were some of his best-loved compositions.

We got to go backstage after the show and chat briefly with Sakamoto. He joked about all the incidental noise from inside and outside the theater. I asked him how conscious he was of, say, the sound of the El trains that rumbled the theater, and he replied that he certainly heard it, but like John Cage he thinks noise is music too.

I’d seen Sakamoto perform earlier this year with Yellow Magic Orchestra in a huge outdoor rock festival in Tokyo (where the set included a couple of the numbers that Sakamoto played in his Chicago gig: “Tibetan Dance” and “Thousand Knives”), and I asked him about the difference mentally for a performer in that sort of event versus the more intimate show he had just played. He said it was much more nerve-wracking to do a solo show: with more players on stage, there is a sense of safety in numbers, but when you’re out there alone, there’s no place to hide.

A few weeks ago, on his Twitter account, Sakamoto responded to a query from a fan, asking how the fan could become a great pianist like Sakamoto. His response: “Don’t practice!” The man, in other words, has a sense of humor on top of being a gifted composer and performer. He heads for the West Coast next; it’s a show well worth seeing if it comes to your town.

The full set list (from Sakamoto’s homepage)
1. glacier
2. improvisation
3. hibari
4. improvisation 2
5. amore
6. a flower is not a flower
7. tango
8. bibo no aozora
9. high heels
10. loneliness
11. the sheltering sky
12. the last emperor
13. merry christmas mr.lawrence

encore 1
14. tibetan dance
15. happy end
16. thousand knives

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The Autumn Concert Season

Posted in Classical,J-Pop,J-Rock,Jazz,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the August 12th, 2010

Well, our upcoming fall concert-going season is pretty well set, and I’m looking forward to some exciting live music. Here are the events we’re planning to attend. How about you?

September 4-5: Chicago Jazz Festival (one of the nation’s premiere jazz events, and it’s all free!)

September 19: Aimee Mann (Old Town School of Folk Music)

September 25: Hyde Park Jazz Festival (Almost as good as the Chicago Jazz Festival, and it’s all free, too)

September 30: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Center; Riccardo Muti conducts Mozart and Haydn)

October 1: Eels (Metro)

October 26: Sakamoto Ryuichi (Vic Theatre)

November 13: Stew and The Negro Problem, featuring Heidi Rodewald (Museum of Contemporary Art)

December 2: Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Center; Pierre Boulez conducts Schoenberg and Janáček)

This and That

Posted in baseball,Classical,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the July 14th, 2010

It must be summer, cuz you’re never around (a good line stolen from the Fountains of Wayne). But I protest: I really am around. You just wouldn’t know it from the paucity of blog updates lately. I’m juggling a large number of rather rather bulky and wobbly projects these days.

I did manage to catch some of the baseball All Star Game last night. When I heard the news yesterday morning about former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, I had to smile at the timing. Back in his heyday in the 1970s and 80s, if the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series in a particular year Steinbrenner would always pull some stunt right in the middle of the series (fire his manager, berate his team captain, whatever) to steal the headlines away from the teams still playing for the championship. So of course the man would pass away on the day of the All Star Game, assuring that all the coverage would focus not on the mid-season classic, but on the Boss.

Yankees’ fans clearly held the man in great affection. As a Twins’ fan and therefore a congenital Yankees’ hater, I generally despised him and everything he stood for as a baseball owner. But as several tributes I’ve read point out, wouldn’t it have been great to have a Twins’ owner as committed to winning as Steinbrenner was with the Yankees? Anyhow, I imagine he is up in heaven now (or, given the Damn Yankees thematic here, down there below), trying to rehire Billy Martin.

The very odd Nagoya sumo tournament got underway Sunday. Something like a quarter of the wrestlers in the top two divisions are suspended or banned due to the gambling/yakuza scandals, and NHK has gotten all holy about this and is refusing to televise the bouts live. Yokozuna Hakuho will no doubt take the title, as usual–on Tuesday he broke his own personal record of 32 consecutive wins. But with so many of the usual faces sitting this one out, the tournament should generate some unusual results. For starters, it’s a terrific opportunity for lower ranked wrestlers to leapfrog up the rankings.

Other than that, what have we been up to? Last Saturday night, we headed downtown to catch the Grant Park Orchestra play a free concert in Millenium Park under the energetic baton of female conductor Xian Zhang. We liked the program very much, as did Tribune critic John von Rhein and Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner. They played a piece by the contemporary composer Chen Yi, Prokofiev’s “Suite from Love for Three Oranges,” and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Didn’t mind the raindrops or the firetruck sirens hardly at all. It must be summer.

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Woodwinds Rule!

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the June 16th, 2010

Bernard Haitink is stepping down later this month as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and he’s going out with a bang: he’s leading the orchestra through the full cycle of Beethoven symphonies in a special series of concerts this summer. Satoko and I headed downtown to Symphony Center last night to catch the penultimate program in the series: it closes out this weekend with, of course, the Ninth.

They opened last night with Symphony #1 in C Major, Opus 21, a work in which Beethoven doesn’t realize yet that he is Beethoven. It’s a pleasant combination of Mozart and Haydn, and the orchestra played it smoothly: at times, I found myself imagining an accordion winding its way through a Viennese waltz as I floated down the Danube River. We noted that concertmaster Robert Chen, one of our favorites, was absent from the stage, his place ably filled by assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu.

The first half closed out with the more Beethoven-like Leonore Overture No. 3. Here, the real stars of the evening began to emerge: the woodwind section, especially principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, who played with such aching beauty that the audience exploded in cheers when Haitink acknowledged him during the ovation. On the haunting trumpet call from the distance that occurs twice in the piece, it seemed to me that none of the visible members of the brass section were playing, and I wondered if they were using an extra trumpeter in the back corridors behind the stage (we saw the orchestra use this trick with the chimes-from-hell in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique a year or two ago). But no one emerged from backstage during the ovation, so now I’m not so sure….

After the intermission, the orchestra played my favorite of the symphonies, No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. The last time I saw this rendered live was about fifteen years ago in a wretched, underrehearsed summer gig by the Minnesota Orchestra, but last night was simply brilliant. The cellos and basses at the beginning of the second movement played with such warmth as to be physiologically chilling. The woodwinds again played spectacularly well (the cheers they received were even louder than those following the Leonore overture). Robert Chen was in his usual seat for the piece, and the violins played wonderfully. Haitink took things fast, especially in the third and fourth movements: I cut my teeth on the Seventh with George Szell’s impatient recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, but last night Haitink left even Szell in the dust. But it all worked magnificently well, and the audience lept to its feet for an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion.

For the first time all evening, as he slowly shuffled off and then back onto the stage to acknowledge the applause, Haitink looked his age (81). He had conducted with great energy and fire, and it was clear now that he had given his all during the performance–just as he has given his all during his four-tenure here in Chicago. Godspeed, Mr. Haitink, and thanks for a magnificent 7th. And here’s hoping the woodwind section sticks around for a few more years: it will be fun to see what Riccardo Muti, the incoming Music Director, does with their talents.

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