Remember that Maxell advertisement from the 1980s with the guy hunched low in a chair, blown away by the music he’s listening to? That’s what it feels like every time I hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform live. When the 150-plus chorus fills their lungs, opens their mouths, and hits you with their wall of sound, it’s an awesome experience. Add a stage full of orchestra members wailing away, including the huge pipe organ that lines the back wall, and you feel the music almost as much as you hear it.
Last night was the last of three performances of Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms, under the direction of guest conductor Kent Nagano. The work was inspired by the death of Brahms’ mother and though it’s a requiem for the dead there’s a fullness of life flowing through the music. Truly amazing.
Unfortunately, four pieces by contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm were inserted between movements of the Requiem, as originally conceived by Rihm in 2002. Spare and sometimes discordant, these modern pieces were unwelcome (and thankfully brief) interruptions, at odds with the lush, exuberance of the Brahms. Imagine incidental music from TV’s Lost popping up throughout Mozart’s Requiem.
Rihm’s modern interludes were visually as well as auditorily disruptive. At each break, the chorus sat down en masse and musicians changed from one score to the other in a flurry of pages on their music stands. After the fourth Rihm intrusion, as the orchestra and chorus filled the hall with rich sound for the final movement of the Requiem, you could sense the audience’s relief, as if to say, “Ah, finally, back to the good stuff.”
On a side note, here’s something that puzzles me about classical music audiences in Chicago: Is it standard audience procedure to give a standing ovation to just about everything? Are we Midwesterners so enthusiastic that we can’t keep our butts in our seats while madly applauding? I attend the CSO a handful of times each year (as well as Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theater) and I’m noticing lately that hometown audiences seem quick to leap to their feet. I tend to save my standing O’s for what I believe (in my humble opinion) are truly outstanding performances. This often leaves me sitting in a sea of arse once the bows on stage get going. While I applaud the audience’s enthusiasm, a standing ovation every time doesn’t leave you with any way to express appreciation for those truly outstanding performances.
Another thing I’ve noticed, which is fast becoming a pet peeve of mine, is people who sprint out of their seats, down the aisle, and out of the building as soon as the clapping begins. What used to be an isolated instance of someone rushing to catch a train has turned into a standard practice. Last night was the worst I have ever seen, a full-fledged exodus as folks rose to their feet for a standing ovation and just kept on walking. By the time the final bows had been taken, half the lower balcony was back out on Michigan Avenue, hailing a cab. No matter that three hundred people on stage had just played and sang their hearts out. Many audience members couldn’t wait an extra two minutes to give back a little love. The spirit of the music had moved them. Unfortunately, it moved them right out the door before the conductor had even left the stage. And that’s just plain rude.