The Chicago Sinfonietta offers innovative and interesting programming, providing new twists on the old and creative programming anew. On Monday evening, October 29, I attended their concert at Orchestra Hall entitled "Climate of Concern." Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, it sought to explore environmental issues through music. The concept intrigued me enough to check it out.
Often, I enjoy listening to works which I have not previously heard. So the first half of the program was enticing. It began with a premiere performance of the Fanfare for Strings and Timpani, by Fred Onovwerosuoke's. The program notes state that it, "... draws from the warrior dances of the Urhobo people of Nigera." Sadly, my late departure to the event made me miss the piece, billed as, "... a celebration of life; of a people's accomplishments, and their hopes and aspiration for the future." Though, I was assured by the lady who sat next to me that night, it was fantastic.
I did arrive in time to catch Global Warming by Michael Abels. With a decidedly Southwestern sense of sound, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. I don't know why I should say, "surprised" other than that I may always worry a tad about what a contemporary work has to offer. Yet this had a traditional, folksy, and even Copland-esque sensibility which I found satisfying.
The highlight of the evening followed. Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai was featured in the Two World Concerto of James DeMars. Nakai's unique instrument with it's haunting sounds and pitches pitted among the swirling sounds of orchestration certainly did work wonderfully as a sort of tone poem. One movement, titled "Lake that Speaks: trembling of beings and things," brings forth infrequently heard colors influenced by the landscape of the composer's Minnesota home. This was a case where it was also intriguing to actually see the music being played, and what instrumentalists needed to do for production of the required soundscape.
Beethoven's 5th Symphony was the more well known work on the program to balance things out. I hadn't heard a live performance of this all too familiar piece in some time. Boosting interest and adding another perspective, a touted video presentation on our environment was to accompany the final movement. Paul Freeman had his orchestra offer a light, sensitive rendition of the symphony which brought attention to insightful playing in parts that I had never so closely noticed before. Really, I became enraptured by this. What it lacked in bombastic dynamism which one might be more accustomed to, it there enabled a natural beauty to proceed. This was the real statement on the environment, I thought, one which music alone could provide.
In contrast, the Bill Foster video presentation paled. Really, I thought it detracted. High tech morphs from scenes of natural beauty to industrialism, pollution, and automotive seemed all too obvious and ideological. This proved a disappointment. Better, I imagined, had the wonderful nature photographs (largely drawn from a collection of Linda and Thomas Litteral) spoken solely.
Actually, I truly thought, at its completion, that this was a case where it would have been better to just leave well enough alone, allowing the music to speak for itself and enabling us to draw from it what we will via individual insight and reflection, rather than trying to make an overly obvious statement through the addition of video. It isn't that there is inherently anything wrong with the visual image possibly helping to bring out another aspect. It can be done effectively at times. Still, I recall what my freshman year of high school music teacher told us about not trying to force some imaginative image in your mind's eye to match the music. Certainly, there are tone poems and such. Music can have a great effect to make us feel something beyond itself. But that's the thing! Music can do this without any need for assistance. It is a language beyond words. And even one picture can easily obscure rather than elucidate that communique with unnecessary cluttering chatter. Here is where a mere program book commentary to get us thinking about how the music speaks to a topic (as was extensively well provided already) would have done much more good, ultimately.