Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Civic engagement: Free symphony and Chicago blues

If the symphony is an acquired taste, the first step is to acquire cash. Main-floor tickets to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cost $47 and up even on a weeknight. Box seats go for $220 each. But there's a way to take in the Orchestra Hall experience for free. It could be ticket to a lifelong interest in classical music.

Symphony Center's tuxedo-clad ushers open the house of Riccardo Muti, Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner to free performances of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, an accomplished youth symphony. Its members also perform at Chicago schools and fieldhouses, but the full complement of musicians performs downtown several times a year. A friend introduced me to the group years ago with a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. The musicians got most of the notes right, and didn't seem to mind premature applause at the end of the third movement.

I'd almost forgotten about the Civic Orchestra till Brenda surprised me four years ago with Symphony Center jazz tickets for my birthday. Listening to jazz was an obvious sacrifice for her though, so since then I've been taking closer looks at the Orchestra Hall schedule to find concerts more to her taste. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra also handed out its calendar during Muti's revelatory 2010 concert in Millennium Park, when I heard the CSO lend unexpected subtlety to pops warhorses like Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet."

A concert series was still outside our budget, but on Thanksgiving weekend we sprung for Orchestra Hall tickets to watch the movie "West Side Story" in Cinemascope with the CSO playing the orchestral parts live. This symphonic spin on a DJ gambit made it hard to decide whether to concentrate on the Jerome Robbins choreography, Natalie Wood/Marni Nixon as Maria, the live musicians, their gilt-edged setting or the Bowery backdrop. Mayor Emanuel, the noted ex-dancer and a presumed Robbins fan, was waiting in the lobby afterward, with a force field of open space around him. That was a performance in itself: When a citizen dared approach, he simultaneously shook her hand and pushed her toward the door.

The Civic Orchestra doesn't get on the mayor's schedule but its concerts are in the Symphony Center fliers, and tickets can be ordered online for $1. This season our household was just comfortable enough to afford a CSO concert and a Civic engagement featuring one of my gateway drugs to classical music, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

In high school I played the trombone part in the violin-free concert band arrangement, which is what the marching band performs in the cafeteria for parents after football season ends. Mr. Folsom conducted the master-blaster last movement, but not at the breakneck orchestral pace. The finale's metronome marks are a point of musicological dispute, but our music teacher simply was trying to make it playable, the same way classmate Pat McCurdy's garage band slowed down Sha Na Na's "Duke of Earl" and accidentally sounded like Gene Chandler. In the bleak mid-winter friend and I would slip out of study hall to listen to Leonard Bernstein's LP Fifth. I learned there was more to this moody work than I knew, and more to my friend, who revealed thoughts of suicide.

In summer, on a lunch break from my messenger job, the Shostakovich Fifth joined the modest classical music library I was building from $2 LPs on the "Standard Repertoire" list in Stereo Review. It would have been in the collection much earlier if the record-club disc I ordered had not inexplicably arrived with a rock album packed inside the sleeve.

Not only do I have a history with this piece, the piece has its own history as well. I got a refresher course from Stephen Press' pre-performance lecture after a quick burrito at Chipotle. (Neither is a concert tradition, but it's a new era.) In 1936 Shostakovich had received a bad writeup in Pravda, and with the thought that Stalin thus had it in for him, billed his next year's symphony as "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism." Such a plot line would be hard to swallow today but for the evidence of Stalin's brutal and mercurial nature.

The program notes had more along these lines, which I read waiting outside the hall for rehearsal to end. Civic Orchestra concerts are general admission, so patrons simply look for open seats, even those behind the orchestra. I chose fifth-row center, too close for clear views beyond the string section but great to take in sound under the domed stage. I've become a regular at Chicago Cultural Center chamber-music performances for the same reason: Live music and especially piano are far superior to the iPod even with stage-monitor earbuds.

Even with free admission, the classical music audience skews older -- I chatted with a Sun-Times retiree I knew, and many surrounding patrons seemed about the same age. But the two younger men next to me were taking iPhone photos of the brightly lit hall, and themselves in it. Many had saved space for friends and were discussing what they knew about the program. Everyone seemed to appreciate the music and their chance to hear it.

The Shostakovich has a lot to hear, a brassy hi-fi spectacular with two harps, timpani, xylophone, celesta and bells. In form it's a conventional, heroic symphony but like generations of loyal Soviets to follow, the composer seems to be delivering subversive messages between the lines. Martial music takes a fun-house cadence and odd dissonant chords undercut the triumphal notes. Jarring left-hand piano notes and pounding drums build a palpable tension.

Press' lecture encouraged the audience to dwell on the morose third movement and not the bombastic finale as the work's heart, and in his description of its D minor construction I recognized a blues scale. Conductor Cliff Colnot, a composer and arranger in classical, rock and jazz, seemed tuned in to the folk and blues overtones, and the musicians combined for a 45-minute blues that built toward not triumph but exhaustion: free at last, thank God almighty.

The result was the Civic at the most accomplished I have heard it, and the most affecting. Often I'll tear up at dramatic music, whether it's an aria, a bolero or Broadway, and here I felt that wave of emotion. Colnot kept the musicians onstage for a long ovation, pointing to each soloist to take a bow. On the trip home, a subway busker was playing "The Thrill Is Gone." The Civic Orchestra had something to teach him, and at the price of admission he should have been there.

The best concerts push the audience outside its comfort zone, or push familiar works into uncharted territory. This performance had both elements, and suggests good things ahead for the rest of the schedule, which includes Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and a Beethoven piano concerto with Emanuel Ax as soloist. They should be hot tickets. They're already free.

No comments: