Return of the Chicago Symphony: first review

Lori Kaufman reports for Slipped Disc:

On Thursday, May 2nd, Chicago welcomed its displaced musicians home to Orchestra Hall after seven weeks of picketing that, for the second time this season, raised painful questions about the worth and function of a classical musician. This wasn’t your typical labor dispute, where two entities struggle for the upper hand and dollars are pushed and squeezed like teenage acne.

Rather, following only seven months after the Lyric Opera Orchestra reluctantly took to the streets, the CSO’s issues made us wonder if our city’s Big Shoulders are no longer quite broad enough to sustain a level of musicianship that has been admired for decades.

Usually a strike means not working. But our symphony players realized that embracing silence was not what they were born to do. Hence, this strike was not a refusal to work, it was a refusal to STOP working. The musicians knew the urgency of reopening Symphony Center. They knew the danger that foments when music exits the lives of humankind, and they knew that the service they provide goes way beyond municipal revenue and gala festivities. Not only were all visiting artists collaterally banished from our city’s main music hall, but the dispute threatened to topple Chicago’s training orchestra, Civic Orchestra, who also lives and works at Symphony Center. Even Illinois’ fledgling high school musicians, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, would have been shut out of their season finale had the strike continued through May. What would the effect be of these institutions floating away with the early morning Lake Michigan fog? And so the beleaguered musicians did the thing they have trained their whole lives for, they performed. They scheduled entire symphonic concerts in various neighborhoods, lovingly conducted by Jay Friedman, principal trombone and newly minted-octogenarian. They also scheduled concerts with smaller ensembles, and they did all of this with no payment.

People voiced confusion regarding the free concerts. “If they need money, why play for free?” some asked. “If they love music, why ask for a salary?,” others grumbled. The answer is simple, and let’s let violist Max Raimi explain: “One of the plagues of our time is how dissociated we are with each other.  We are holed up in our homes looking at screens, holed up in our cars, or engrossed in our phones even in public spaces. Now more than ever, musicians are needed to provide a ritual where people create a congregation, for once experiencing something as a community. No matter how well a rehearsal goes, there is a palpable difference in the evening when we feel the presence of our audience around us in the concert; it is a deeply spiritual experience.  While I love many musical genres, I feel that the greatest classical music performed at the highest level provides this spiritual nourishment in a unique and irreplaceable manner. It was difficult over the last seven weeks not to feel degraded, as this gift, rather than being valued, seemed to have a price tag attached to it.”

This was their goal, to get back onstage as soon as possible and create, create, and recreate experiences for the public. We can all be grateful to Mayor Rahm Emanuel for being able to put his special confrontational talents to good use, and the deal was done. But the strike wasn’t over until the music started up again.

The return coincidentally fell upon a portentous program of Rome-centric works by Bizet, Berlioz, and Respighi. From the pregame warm-up, the musicians made it clear that it was business as usual, they were not looking for glory nor adulation and seemed quietly surprised each time the audience rose to their feet with extended applause. Even Maestro Muti seemed especially understated, as if to stand aside and let the musicians have their moment. The awe-inspiring Joyce DiDonato blessed the newly reopened hall by effortlessly bending her spectacular vocal range around every corner, planting her powerful low notes like oak trees down on the stage, and sending her diamond-like high notes as shooting stars into the audience. Here Muti and his musicians showed off their accompanimental prowess, gliding along like a lush velvet magic carpet for DiDonato to fly on, like a hypnotizing genie.

There could not have been a more fitting ending to this homecoming than the illustrative Pines of Rome. No conductor alive today knows how to build a triumphant climax the way Muti does. His opera expertise enables him to draw out the longest line possible, sleight of hand that can seamlessly connect the last note of a concert back to the first note played two hours previously. Hearing the build up of the army marching on Via Appia was like watching someone construct a castle with his bare hands. Muti and his faithful soldiers played out the endless B-flat coda like a call to arms, rising in courage and dignity until the shimmering final chord. Rome is messy, beautiful, complicated, just as is Chicago. But the music is back on, and we are all better for it.

“…so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”

   -Carl Sandburg, Chicago

(Charlie Vernon accepting a homemade sign from a fan)

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    • Thank you, Anthea. I remember you and your talented sisters from
      Interlochen many years ago. I was there 1981-84. Thank you for publishing your interview with JBY!

  • Ahh yes, the old American attitude towards the arts and educators: “if you love what you do, why do you want to get paid?” .

    I know a lot of doctors and lawyers who love what they do, and I don’t see anyone questioning that they nonetheless expect to get paid.

    • Do doctors walk out in the middle of a patient’s appointment, or in the middle of surgery? Does a lawyer stop working in the middle of a trial because of pay?

      • No, but sure as heck send bill collectors after you if you don’t pay up. When’s the last time an orchestra garnished your wages or lowered your credit rating?

      • In your opinion, WHEN is it the right time? When no concerts are scheduled and none will notice??

      • Yes, attorneys can and do withdraw from representing a client due to lack of payment.

        From the American Bar Association website:

        [8] A lawyer may withdraw if the client refuses to abide by the terms of an agreement relating to the representation, such as an agreement concerning fees or court costs or an agreement limiting the objectives of the representation.

        As for the doctors, I think what you describe would be more akin to walking out in the middle of a concert. Many doctors certainly do refuse to see whole classes of patients whose insurance coverage will not pay them what they feel is reasonable for their services.

      • And these musicians did not stop playing in the middle of a concert, either, so the analogy does not hold up. Fall behind on your payments to a doctor or attorney you’ve been seeing on a consistent basis, and see how easy it is for you to book your next appointment.

      • You’ll need a better analogy; I’m pretty sure the CSO didn’t walk off the stage at Orchestra Hall during a performance of Mahler’s 5th.

    • A very unfortunate association, Bill. There is considerable sentiment that American doctors — “specialists” — are ruinously overpaid, and that many are attracted to the profession only by this prospect.

  • I was at the concert yesterday evening. While there was enthusiastic applause by those who attended, the hall was surprisingly not filled to capacity—which I had originally anticipated. (The gallery had many empty seats and they put many students in the lower balcony to fill seats, and usually the lower balcony is the last place where they fill seats up.) It might be too early to say for sure, but I am very much hoping that the institution isn’t too damaged after this strike.

  • Thank you Lori Kaufman for providing this beautifully written account. Thank you Max Raimi for stating with sincerity and clarity why we need classical music. Thank you Chicago Symphony, Maestro Muti, and Joyce DiDonato for providing the glorious music. Welcome back!

  • The most heinous thing about the CSO strike wasn’t so much their own cancellations, it was holding every other scheduled concert and show at Orchestra Hall hostage. The Civic Orchestra has had a long history of being treated as little more than an appendage.

    • “Heinous”? Oh, please. Separating families at the border is heinous. Killing civilians in Yemen is heinous. Preventing concerts falls a bit short of that. The strikers have a massive disadvantage; they don’t get paid, and their adversaries do. To offset this, if they don’t choose simply to lose, they must put as much pressure as possible on management.
      The gist of comments attacking the musicians on this thread seems to boil down to outrage at the very concept of collective bargaining. The idea that a few effective unions still exist, and can empower their members, has all the cranky old denizens of this board positively in a tizzy.

  • The awe-inspiring Joyce DiDonato blessed the newly reopened hall by effortlessly bending her spectacular vocal range around every corner, planting her powerful low notes like oak trees down on the stage, and sending her diamond-like high notes as shooting stars into the audience. Here Muti and his musicians showed off their accompanimental prowess, gliding along like a lush velvet magic carpet for DiDonato to fly on, like a hypnotizing genie.

    I guess that you liked it: Oak trees, diamonds, shooting stars, lush velvet magic carpet and a genie. Joyce has that effect on me as well.

  • What a load of overwritten tripe. I was pretty much neutral about the strike until the musicians decided upon their highly-emotional, PR-constructed moral crusade to hide the fact that they wanted more stuff (which they’re entitled to want, of course). “From the Heart of the Orchestra,” indeed.

    The visiting artists were not “banished” from the main hall, they were prevented from entering by the musicians’ picket lines. This was not a lockout, it was a job action by labor.

    The “beleaguered” musicians can now go back to what they normally do, play for audiences that will be paying ever-increasing ticket prices to support them and donors who will be squeezed ever harder. Oh, that’s right, the patrons, those people who were pretty much ignored for seven weeks.

    As for philosopher/violist Max Raimi, let us remember that he is perfectly willing to take money earned in the most immoral ways, a stance he expressed in an essay during the strike that posited moral superiority for the musicians over the evil board members.

    There is nothing per se wrong about the orchestra wanting to be paid more. There is something wrong when they and their most ardent supporters try to turn it into something noble. It was not.

    • Precisely. Many of these pro-strike writings betray the old ‘second city’ insecurities. You can’t have it both ways. It isn’t that the CSO isn’t a top drawer orchestra – of course it is! The question is, what becomes of your rejects, meaning those who don’t win their auditions with the CSO or the other highly paid mega-orchestras (?) . . . they fill the rank and file positions of lessor paid orchestras and work the ‘freeway philharmonic’ circuit. As a result, the quality of many of theses lower paid orchestras surrounding you is often times quite high (certainly not always). This is why so many of us are trying to get through to you, that it’s difficult for us to “sympathize” or feel sorry for you when you’re already doing quite well – especially when so many cancellations were involved. When we don’t sympathize and take your side, you then – right here on this public website! – call us jealous and label us as ‘haters’. Where do think that will get you? Would ANY p.r. person recommend you do that?

      Look, nobody here begrudges that you had a great concert with Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” as the highlight. I’m sure the brass section had a field day. Fritz Reiner made an outstanding recording of it with the CSO for RCA, and Riccado Muti made a very good EMI recording of the ‘Roman trilogy’ with Philly back in the late ’70s (or early ’80s). He certainly knows those pieces. This is as it should be, but just don’t expect everybody to love you for your strike. Also, drop the ‘best in the world’ moniker. There is no such thing (personally, I prefer Boston, Philly and Cleveland and L.A. [among others], but they’re ALL really good).

  • I must admit that the review really made me wish I’d been at the concert too. I am a huge fan of Muti anyway and have become a fan of Joyce Didonato since seeing her in Werther in the ROH in 2016.

  • As a non professional orchestral player, I am very touched and happy that the CSO has resumed their performances in Chicago . Things are as they should be once again !

  • Blah! By the simple fact that classical music has become irrelevant in our — i.e. primarily American — society, all of this is nonsense. We are simply not taught the value of great art, and the importance of creating or participating in the promotion and teaching the value and discipline of great art. Therefore, by virtue of this fact (like it or not, it’s true), how can we justify the extortionate pay of not only these part-time “Music Directors,” but the orchestra musicians themselves (exempting the benefits which are beyond and different from salary)?
    When you think of New York Ballet dancers having to go on SNAP to get decent food; when you think of [serious] church musicians who have to both conduct a choir and play the organ simultaneously (talk about multi-tasking!) who are lucky to be paid $12,000 — $20,000 a year FULL TIME!; who are these orchestral musicians to piss and moan about their working conditions? I find them just as reprehensible in their attitude as the majority of overpaid sports figures. The only difference is that the sports figures can at least justify their pay by the popularity of their enterprise. Can classical musicians do the same? I think not.

    • Since most professional football players in England play for teams that make losses, they too are being subsidized by donors.

    • You sound like a very bitter, jealous, unhappy little man. Don’t you have anything better to do with your time? Writing music nobody will listen to, or playing organ recitals for an empty church?

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