Note: Due to the COVID-19 heath crisis, this concert run has been canceled. Tickets may be exchanged for other CSO/SCP concerts or refunded. More options and additional information can be found at cso.org or by calling Symphony Center at (312) 294-3000.
It’s hard to pin down André de Ridder, and that’s exactly the way the German-born conductor likes it.
Although his international career is solidly anchored in the classical realm, with debuts in 2019-20 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Cincinnati Symphony, his musical interests are wide-ranging. He has worked with the British band These New Puritans, jazz musician Uri Caine and the electronic duo Mouse on Mars, and in 2013, he co-founded stargaze, a Berlin-based musical collective that blurs the boundaries between classical music, contemporary pop, electronica and what it calls “uncategorizable” music.”
When de Ridder, 49, conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 12, 14 and 17 in his subscription series debut, he will lead a program on the more traditional side. But even here, a taste of his cross-genre predilections will be on view. The orchestra suggested the idea for a line-up that examines classical music influenced by the emergence of jazz, with two works by George Gershwin and two by Maurice Ravel. “I love these sort of mirroring programs,” de Ridder said. Pianist Inon Barnatan will serve as soloist in two of the featured works, Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, which premiered within eight years of each other in the early 20th century. “It was actually a good collaboration,” he said, “between the orchestra describing what they wanted to do and giving some hints of repertoire, and then me coming in and saying, in that case, ‘What about this?’ ”
The program opens with Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture, a suite drawn from the Gershwin opera by Richard Rodney Bennett, an Academy Award-nominated composer of film, television and concert music, as well as a prolific arranger. “I think it is put together and connected in a really interesting way as a through-composed piece rather than just a collage of all the big hits,” de Ridder said. The program ends with Ravel’s Boléro.
As mentioned, much of de Ridder’s career has been focused on new-music festivals and musical start-ups like stargaze, which has core of about a dozen musicians. “It’s a little bit, to talk about legendary American [chamber music] ensembles, between the Kronos Quartet and Alarm Will Sound or something,” he said. This season, stargaze is taking what he calls a kind of “guerrilla” approach to celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with (not) Another Beethoven Cycle, featuring musical artists from a range of disciplines commissioned to “respond” to each of the composer’s nine symphonies.
“Stargaze gives me the opportunity to try out things that maybe with an orchestral organization would take much, much longer to get going or would probably be too much outside the boundaries of what you’re expected to do,” he said. “So it’s a little bit of a utopian experiment and a way to break out of the constraints that we often find in the classical-music industry.”
De Ridder is the first non-Finnish artistic director of Musica Nova Helsinki, Finland’s largest contemporary-music festival. He describes the Finnish classical scene as having a “special vibrancy” because of its regular inclusion of new repertoire. “Contemporary music does not scare off audiences, and people are very open and interested,” he said. The festival takes place every two years, with the next one set for Feb. 2-10, 2021. Many of the Finland’s top musical organizations, like the Helsinki Philharmonic, participate.
In 2017 and 2018, de Ritter served as artistic curator of the London-based Spitalfields Music Festival, which typically combines Renaissance and Baroque music with newly commissioned creations. In 2017, the 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi, the festival featured premieres by young British composers tied in some way to the milestone composer. The following year, the event included a presentation of Robert Schumann’s celebrated Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), a cycle of 16 art songs written in 1840. Sixteen singers performed then more or less simultaneously, each in a different historic house, and listeners could roam from one performance to the next and experience these masterpieces in a totally different way.
“So it’s staged things in an experimental way but using traditional repertoire — finding new audiences for that kind of repertoire and putting it in new contexts,” he said. “I’m looking for these opportunities to find ways of presenting classical repertoire to a wide audience and to find appreciation for music that otherwise would just be presented in Wigmore Hall in London or more traditional concert houses.”
In a similar vein, he began this season a three-year series of genre-defying concerts with London’s Southbank Centre called Unclassified Live. The presentations spring from a recently established radio show, Unclassified, on BBC Radio 3, which focuses on classical music and opera. De Ridder met the show’s host, Elizabeth Alker, and he told her how much he like her format. “I said, ‘What about doing this live?” he said, “What about introducing these new young composers — this new generation, interviewing them live onstage and playing the music with an orchestra?” Within months, de Ridder and Alker had co-curated the first season. The next installment on April 3 will feature the BBC Concert Orchestra performing Caroline Shaw’s Lo for violin and orchestra, among other offerings.
“It’s not just about taking traditional ensembles out to weird places, unusual places,” de Ridder said. “The more important thing for me is to bring those audiences then back into the concert halls that have been built for that kind of music and that sound the best in that repertoire.”
De Ridder served as principal conductor of the Sinfonia ViVA in Derby, England, from 2007 through 2012, but with all of the festivals and other initiatives he oversees, he has not held a conventional orchestral leadership post since. He’s just fine with that. “I do have to say that I enjoy hopping between the more traditional concert repertoire with orchestras and then developing new projects,” he said.
However, he is in no way ruling returning to a permanent conducting post in the future. “I still think there is time for me,” he said. “I feel like I’m trying to push a lot of boundaries, and there will be a time, and it might not be too far off, when I will take on an organization that is ‘only,’ in the best sense of the word, an orchestra, that is interested in really building a new community for themselves. I’m moving toward that. And all these experiences that I have and the varied work I do, I think they are really contributing to my understanding of what an orchestra or opera house can mean us to nowadays.”