June 20, 2006 6:18 pm

Indelible stamp on Chicago Symphony

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When a 15-year-old pianist named Daniel Barenboim heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time, he is reported to have said it was “like a perfect machine with a beating human heart”. That was in 1958, the year he made his Chicago recital debut as pianist.

Almost half a century later, Barenboim has taken his leave of the machine after 15 years as music director – and has made clear that he has no immediate plans to return.

A door has not exactly been slammed shut. But the Barenboim years in the Windy City were not marked by a mutual affection that might have left both sides with a more enduring relationship.

Barenboim’s departure, made public two years ago, came by mutual consent: he, frustrated at having to combine musical stewardship with the glad-handing of potential donors; they unsure of his commitment to audience-building at a time of falling subscriptions.

Last week’s set of farewell concerts – the ninth symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven – showed how the orchestra has morphed since the Georg Solti years that defined the Chicago sound in the two decades before Barenboim took over in 1991.

Barenboim not only successfully followed a musical legend, but also transformed the orchestra’s sound while retaining its greatness. Few would deny that it still ranks in the top handful of ensembles in the world.

Gone is the famously showy brass of the Solti years. In its place for some years has been a balanced ensemble of players who think about shared sonority, rather than merely follow the baton. The strings, once almost purely a defence mechanism against the brass, have a confidence and fullness that is part of a new Chicago sound.

Barenboim has achieved this not only by fostering a listening culture but also by recruiting exceptional new talent to the roles of principal, helping to bed the system down: Robert Chen, concertmaster, Mathieu Dufour, flutist, and Christopher Martin, principal trumpet, stand out. About a third of the orchestra is new since the Solti days, and the average age is lower. The proportion of Asian-born talent is among the highest of any orchestra in America.

Barenboim has taken the Chicagoans abroad in more than 20 tours, building on its first international tour under Solti in 1971 – and including its first trip to his native Argentina.

Yet to audiences, he could be diffident. Stage presence was often a problem for Barenboim, whose awkward, usually unsmiling acknowledgement of applause did
little to endear him to

There were also suspicions that he had little regard for the Chicago audience, telling a UK newspaper once that he couldn’t stand being in Chicago any more “and hearing the Brahms violin concerto in the elevator”. But he did care, deeply, about the mission of music, rather than the theatrics of delivery.

The mission took him into bold territory at times. In 2001 he pulled off a complete concert performance of Tristan and Isolde as part of a vast Wagner subscription series. The project plunged the orchestra into deficit for the first time in years, but artistically it was seen as a triumph.

Barenboim’s missionary zeal also shone through in the orchestra’s embrace of new music, especially that of Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez, who joined as principal guest conductor in 1995.

Premieres flowed from Symphony Hall virtually from day one: a Zwilich concerto for bass trombone, strings, timpani and cymbals, plenty from the
composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas and a strong commitment to Carter, whose cello concerto got its first hearing in 2001.

Last week, a white-haired Carter, 98, appeared on stage after a performance of his Soundings, written last year for Barenboim and the orchestra. It was an important moment, reminding those who may have forgotten that this orchestra has been at the forefront of new music since the 1930s, when premieres even of British composers of the period were common features of an evening’s programme.

Unfortunately for Chicago, Barenboim leaves with no successor. Bernard Haitink recently agreed to fill the void in a new, temporary role as principal conductor. Boulez continues as conductor emeritus.

Whoever at last takes his place, however, will find an ensemble that is on top musical form. When that person is appointed, he or she may like to revisit a comment Barenboim made in 1989 when the orchestra announced he was coming: “The only thing I can do is make it worse.”

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