By Dennis Polkow
It isn’t very often that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra unveils a piece for the very first time with the composer actually present during the preparations, but on the morning of last week’s world premiere of CSO co-composer-in-residence Mark Anthony Turnage’s “Chicago Remains,” Elvis Costello doppelganger Turnage is there in the hall virtually by himself with score in hand as CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink is about to rehearse the orchestra in a final run-through of the piece before that night’s premiere performance. Few of the orchestra members are discussing the piece, however, but are bustling about and waiting for Haitink to call them to order. A few lines of the score can be heard here and there amongst the mostly jeans-clad players, but most are sitting back and sharing a laugh, a piece of gossip, studying a visiting journalist with x-ray eyes, talking about politics, the fires in California, assessing the visiting London Symphony Orchestra that had just visited, et al.
Haitink, sporting a baby blue button-down shirt hanging over a pair of tan slacks and brown sneakers, makes his way through the side door of stage right and walks carefully to his podium, score in hand, having been studying it during the rehearsal break back in his basement dressing room before taking a private stage elevator ride with security Captain “Willy” Yates to reach the stage level. A chair is situated behind the podium placed at the front and center of the stage, but Haitink, 78, will make no use of it, though he had during the rehearsal of the tiny chamber ensemble he had used during a run-through of the Mozart Symphony No. 25. Players also have their cases and personal items on stage for the moment, something they never do during a concert as it makes the stage look cluttered and chaotic, especially clashing with the stark blacks and whites of the tuxedos, ball gowns and slack suits.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Haitink says in excellent English but with a strong Dutch accent, “we will have a run-through, and we will only stop for corrections when necessary.” With virtually no pause and with little movement or fanfare, Haitink is waving his right hand ever so slightly and indistinctly, but few players have their eyes on him as the music begins. As various sections or players have entrances, Haitink will look up from his heavily marked score to offer a visual cue, but few players are looking at them when they are given, and Haitink, unlike most name conductors who would be furious at such a lack of attention to their direction, seems unbothered by this. At one point, a violinist who is literally right under Haitink’s nose is laughing and talking while the music is in progress, and Haitink is either ignoring the player or so caught up in the score that he is unaware of him. In fairness, compared to most of the contemporary music that the Chicago Symphony has played in recent years, say, the atonal and completely cerebral music of Elliott Carter that former music director Daniel Barenboim used to perform here regularly, Turnage’s tonal and accessible music is virtual ear candy by comparison.
As Haitink returns to his podium after a conference with Turnage, pianist Emmanuel Ax, the soloist for the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, steps up the stage stairs to head backstage shaking hands and sharing pleasantries with a few of the players. “There will be slight change at letter N,” Haitink announces, and proceeds to have the brass section scale back to “forte,” or loud. Indeed, all of the piece’s corrections are changes in dynamic levels requested by Turnage, allowing for a more sculpted and contrasting orchestral texture than the automatic pilot brass-heavy sound that the orchestra has been supplying for Haitink for their recent concerts together. When all of the corrections have been made to Turnage’s satisfaction, the composer utters a simple and very British, “Fantastic,” which is good enough for Haitink, and he and the orchestra supply polite applause for him in turn.
It’s all very low-key and civil, a far cry, for better or worse, from the manic Barenboim days when a major composer such as John Corigliano would have to interrupt a rehearsal to make a suggestion only to have Barenboim shout back at him, “I know what you want, John, now get out of my way and let me get it for you.”
Bernard Haitink conducts the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for the first time ever in a free concert at 7:30pm November 4 at the Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, (312)294-3000. He concludes his fall residency with the Chicago Symphony next week.