11/20/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

In the Windy City, Part II

©2013 Daniel Asia

As I mentioned in my last missive, one of the events I attended in Chicago was at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's wonderful hall. In the program guide for that Andras Schiff recital were numerous articles, one of which particularly caught my attention. It pertains to the CSO's new music series, hosted by their youthful Composers-in-Residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne.

Orchestras are running scared these days, with some going bankrupt, locked out, downsized or having their seasons shortened. Actually, you could say something similar of the entire classical music world. To counteract this, various scenarios are being attempted. One is the cross-over phenomenon. Whether it is performing in new club-like spaces (e.g. Poisson Rouge in New York City), acclaim given to composers (e.g. John Zorn), or mixing up music with other genres (e.g. literature, visuals, dance), just about everything is being tried to keep it fresh, new, appealing and trendy.

While the recent news is that the CSO is in fine financial mettle, the above comments couldn't be more true of the CSO's new music series and its content, which provides listeners with "a diverse spectrum of electrifying new music inspired by literature, cinema, travel, and architecture". One piece contains a "massive indulgence"; the music is "relentless -- a wild ride...that leaves you feeling like you're driving down a road, hearing people's porch chimes shatter to the ground as you speed past." What a gas-but not exactly a musically deep experience. Not to be out done, another work is a "musical ecosystem (environmental terminology is very hip these days) of electronic sounds, rooted nevertheless in an acoustic source." Why should anyone care about the source, when what matters is whether real music has been created? Another work includes "folky modal melodies and rollicking rhythms", "a world of fractured pitches and pictures" which we are told somehow correlates to Bartok, who, by the way, used folk materials in a most sophisticated way. Another work to be presented is named "after a curious collection of crudely drawn pictures thought to have been Native American lithography but later theorized to be the doodles of a naughty schoolboy." The piece uses a delightful hodgepodge of percussion instruments, the normal assortment of found objects, in a piece that is a "sprawling, high-energy, landscape that is simultaneously spirited, provocative, and fun." Forget about whether the Redskins football team should be renamed; if I were an Indian I'd be picketing this concert.

These pieces seem to cover just about all of the necessary musical-political bases. Let's see -- one adrenaline rush with that wild ride; an environmentally correct piece; that folky thing which makes sure there is nothing elitist going on here; something just a tad transgressive and provocative with those naughty doodles; and finally, it is all just "fun", ironic and superficial and just a little bit dumb.

But I have saved the best for last. Also to be included will be the music of one Prefuse 73, aka Guillermo Scott Herren, known for "precision-spliced glitch-hop". We are told that he "often mentions the influence of abstract contemporary classical has on his own music, and his ear for superb sound design makes him right at home in the new music world". Uh, no it doesn't -- real music is just that, and sound design is something of a purely background nature and generally has no musical content -- namely, it is idea-less, sound without meaning. But the best part is-get ready -- his music will be performed in orchestrations by the composers-in-residence. In other words, this guy doesn't even have the chops or the time to do his own scores. Now, just as a note of qualification, it has always been assumed in the classical world that a composer's individuality and voice is inseparable from his orchestration. There have been a few exceptions, for example, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition which is usually performed in the version by Ravel, but these generally prove the rule. When there are fine and talented composers out there who really might have a voice, a stamp of individuality, for the CSO to stoop to this is really quite outrageous.

So one must ask the question: Are there no adults in the CSO's organization? Their simpleminded complicity in all this "fun" is numbing. Maestro Muti, why are you allowing this travesty to take place and your fine musicians to be abused by having to participate in this nonsense? Why is the fine legacy of marvelous composers-in-residence like John Corigliano, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read Thomas being traduced with this mindless idiocy? You certainly know the difference between real music and this fraudulent stuff. Though I am sure you will not conduct or even attend these concerts, as music director you are to be held responsible and accountable.

CSO President Rutter announces in her opening comments of the booklet that she likes her music live -- so do I. But it better be the real stuff to have a chance and to be money and time well spent. Or are we only leaving music of beauty, craft, the spirit, seriousness and meaning, for the classics series, which assuredly will contain little new music. What a dreadful development. As a leader in the orchestra world the Chicago Symphony Orchestra should be ashamed.