The legacy, the labyrinth, and the review that never was

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Pierre Boulez in rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, February 1969. (Courtesy of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives)

We’ve all probably sick of hearing the pathetic but reassuring trope “You win some, you lose some.” For an upstart journalist, the cliché transposes to something a little more tangible: sometimes you’re picked up, and, well, sometimes you’re not.

I recently revisited a dual review I’d written a year ago, which critiqued both a CSO program curated by Pierre Boulez and the CSO’s Beyond the Score production on Boulez himself. I submitted it to the Chicago Maroon‘s arts section and, for one reason or another, it never ran. (The reason given to me at the time was that it’d simply been lost in the black hole that was—and still is—our column’s email inbox.)

Even though it never saw the light of day, I think the process of writing this particular review was what really got me hooked on music criticism. As a total novice in twelve-tone music, I found Boulez’s music hypnotizing, overwhelming, and baffling all at once—enough to make me hunger to hear more, and to know as much as I possibly could about something I knew next to nothing about.

It sounds bizarre, but that insatiable curiosity—coupled with the persistent feeling that I’m in way over my head—is still what keeps me going. It did a year ago, and it does now, only doubly so.

The review is below:

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The night the music died

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The empty stage of Le Bataclan prior to Friday’s fatal concert. (Photo: Matt McJunkins)

It almost goes without saying, but it also cannot be overstated: There has been a tragedy in Paris.

What were then fuzzy reports of independent but coincident acts of violence around the city yesterday culminated in a hostage situation at Le Bataclan, a historic concert venue named after Jacques Offenbach’s operetta of the same name. American band Eagles of Death Metal was playing to a capacity crowd—some 1,500 people—when gunmen stormed the venue. They held nearly 100 concertgoers hostage, including a music journalist and tour staff members.

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What classical music could be

Andrés Franco leads the Chicago Sinfonietta and Waubonsie Valley Varsity Combined Choirs. (Photo: Chris Ocken)

Andrés Franco leads the Chicago Sinfonietta and Waubonsie Valley Varsity Combined Choirs. (Photo: Chris Ocken)

When he was still a young man, conductor Paul Freeman stumbled off a redeye flight in Atlanta. As he was walking through the airport, he ran into none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was waiting for his flight.

They spoke, and King asked Freeman what brought him to Atlanta at such an ungodly hour. After Freeman explained that he was there to conduct the Atlanta Symphony—the first black conductor to do so—King exclaimed: “Hallelujah! The last bastion of elitism.”

The year was 1968. Three months after their conversation, King was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. His death stunned Freeman, but also made him resolve to do what he could to make sure black voices were heard in the concert hall—and not just black voices, but voices of all colors, sexes, and creeds.

Unfortunately, on the whole, I’m not sure that things have changed much since King prematurely rejoiced with Freeman in an airport terminal in 1968. But after having watched the Chicago Sinfonietta—which Freeman founded in 1987—perform for the first time, I have an idea of what classical music could be. It was a heartening sight to see faces in Orchestra Hall that, for once, seemed like a true cross-section of Chicago’s demographic.

If Maestro Freeman’s vision for the Chicago Sinfonietta was for it to “reflect the people of the community in which it performed,” he certainly seems to have succeeded. As for the rest of the classical world? We’re still waiting.