Probably the most impressive aspect of Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 season has been its consistent commitment to musical diversity. The programming has increasingly given a spotlight to younger (or at least living) composers, but it has also found forgotten gems and paired relatively obscure selections with more popular ones. This particular performance was an especially strong example of this trend, as established composers Barber and Gershwin shared billing with a lesser-known contemporary of theirs (William Schuman) and CSO co-composer-in-residence Mason Bates in a program that was stylistically diverse while still demonstrating logical construction.

Anne Akiko Meyers © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Anne Akiko Meyers
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

While each selection inhabited a distinct sound world, there were several connecting threads that made their proximity to one another more rewarding. The most obvious connection was that these were all written by American composers living during the 20th century. However, thanks in part to Phillips Huscher’s consistently excellent program notes and Leonard Slatkin’s shocking yet welcomed verbal preamble to the Schuman Symphony, more significant abstract similarities became illuminated.

For example, all four works featured sectional forms that favored short-term development of motives and styles over conventional forms that are dependent on long-term development and recurring ideas. This concept of sections was also manifested in the orchestration of the two pieces on the first half, as both Barber and Schuman favored presenting material within a single orchestra family. Furthermore, the latter three selections were all largely dependent on rhythms from popular music, even though they were all handled uniquely. These deep-structural connections allowed for greater flexibility in surface elements such as style and use of tonality, which made for a much richer experience.

Oddly, the featured selection appeared not to be Bates’ Violin Concerto or Gershwin’s An American in Paris but, rather, Schuman’s Symphony no. 6. Schuman, who died in 1992, received the first Pulitzer Prize awarded for composition, but he was also renowned as an educator, serving as president for both the Julliard School and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Relative to this program, the significance of Schuman’s Sixth was tipped by Slatkin’s five-minute introduction, though it was the music’s transcendence of American concert music tropes that set it apart.

Written in 1948, it was simultaneously retrospective and forward-thinking, recalling Charles Ives' juxtapositions and Gershwin-esque extrapolations on syncopation while demonstrating a grasp of percussion that anticipates the writing of composers such as Michael Colgrass and Joseph Schwantner. Although names like Bates and Gershwin are more effective for marketing purposes, it was Schuman’s monumental work that united the American and generation-spanning program most effectively.

This is not to diminish Bates’ writing: most known for combining digital music and live DJ’s with live orchestra, Bates’ Violin Concerto, an entirely acoustic work, shows that he is perhaps underrated as an orchestrator. While his EDM and film scoring influences can render themselves too clumsily in his writing (some of his looping violin section writing sounded like less effective synthesizer lines, for example), he does a fine job of implementing groove elements within the orchestra in organic ways, and his percussion writing is certainly an asset (Cynthia Yeh’s performance was excellent for the entire program). Bates also showcases a gift for writing a supremely technically challenging solo part that is as strongly suited to Anne Akiko Meyers’ strengths as he claims. Meyers had great fun ripping into the myriad rhythmic and arpeggiated flourishes provided by Bates. However, her lyrical interpretation lacked depth, and the absence of warmth in these passages was somewhat distracting.

If the CSO has a weakness, it is the ability to effectively execute more modern non-classical styles. Such stylistic adventurousness was abundant in this program, and it worked against the orchestra’s performance. Many of the orchestrated grooves in Bates’ piece never fused together, sounding more like a series of individual attacks than a seamless groove. Orchestral hits in the scherzo section of the Schuman were frequently not felt together. And while Chris Martin’s lyrical interpretation is often a vital asset to the CSO, he made virtually no effort to adapt his style for the trumpet solos in the Gershwin. This may be a conventional orchestral interpretation for An American in Paris, but classical musicians who attempt to claim Gershwin as their own are missing the point. Gershwin was at his most effective when he transcended boundaries between classical and popular music. This program was built with this aesthetic in mind, but the performance did not always follow through.