He was one of the most avid chroniclers of modern Chicago Symphony Orchestra history. Now, four years after his untimely death, the Chicago music critic and broadcaster Andrew Patner is being remembered with, an anthology of his radio interviews, newspaper reviews and feature articles, published by the University of Chicago Press.
Gathering select reviews and feature articles for the Chicago Sun-Times and transcripts of his radio interviews for WFMT-FM, the book zeroes in on his coverage of the CSO from 1991 until just before his death on Feb. 3, 2015, at age 55. It specifically focuses on four conductors who stood on the Orchestra Hall podium during this era: Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Muti. (The book, available through The Symphony Store, was edited by John R. Schmidt, a partner at Mayer Brown LLP and a CSO trustee since 1977, and Douglas W. Shadle, assistant professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University. The drawing of Andrew featured on the book’s frontispiece and displayed above is by Tom Bachtell, Patner’s life partner.)
The Chicago-born Patner brought a somewhat unlikely résumé to this task. He earned a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin, studied law at the University of Chicago and covered politics as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. When he turned to classical music and the arts, he applied the same crisp style and reportorial acumen, giving even casual Sun-Times readers pathways into the art form. Patner also cultivated a gift as a radio commentator, and starting in the 1990s, began working as a broadcaster, first for WBEZ and later on WFMT, with the weekly program “Critical Thinking.”
Epitomizing the maxim that journalism is the first draft of history, A Portrait tells the story not only of an orchestra and its leaders, but also of traditions and trends in interpretation. Though Patner could be tough in his reviews, conductors opened up to him. “These formidable figures saw Andrew as an intellectual equal,” writes New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross in his preface, “and entrusted him with insights that appear nowhere else.”
Here is a look at the four maestros featured in the book:
Daniel Barenboim, music director, 1991 to 2006
After the 28-year tenure of Sir Georg Solti, the Barenboim era is described as a time of passion and spontaneity. Patner praises Barenboim’s “dozens of outstanding hires” (including concertmaster Robert Chen) and several noteworthy tours. He takes readers to a 2000 Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, where principal trumpet Adolph “Bud” Herseth, then 78, shows that “the orchestra’s unofficial captain was in full command.” He also describes a successful Japan tour, in which a hushed Tokyo audience responds with long “waves of clapping” and later mobs the brass players for autographs.
Patner’s conversations with Barenboim — and they’re always conversations, not interviews — are feisty and engaging, often touching on social and political issues. Ahead of a 2006 CSO visit to his native Buenos Aires, Barenboim muses about the Argentinian disposition (“not egoistic, but egocentric and not in a negative way”). And when pressed to reflect on his years with the orchestra, Barenboim considers how he and the musicians came to breathe in the same manner (“like a collective lung”), notably during a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal.
Pierre Boulez, principal guest conductor, 1995 to 2006, and conductor emeritus, 1995-2016
The late Pierre Boulez comes across as a charming rebel who wins over CSO audiences with his no-nonsense podium style and bracing juxtapositions of Debussy and Ligeti, Schoenberg and Janáček, Berio and Berlioz. Patner marvels at the nuances of color and texture that Boulez could draw from the music. His interviews elicit insights and personal details from the master: Boulez’s personal discovery of modernism in pre-war France came through the music of Honegger. Messiaen, Boulez observed, was “an interesting outsider, rejected by part of the establishment,” which led him to conclude, “Yes, I must study with this man.” The music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern came to him after 1945.
Boulez’s relationship to Mahler is especially complex. He gets less of a charge from the “big sounds” and “sentimental” moments in the symphonies, and more from the composer’s chamber music textures and touches of sly humor. “If you exaggerate the sentimental, the sarcasm is gone,” Boulez said of Mahler’s post-Romantic language.
Bernard Haitink, principal conductor, 2006-2010; regular guest maestro thereafter
Bernard Haitink was 77 when he took up the role of principal conductor, and he won over musicians immediately with his “concern for musical accuracy and a disdain of over-interpretation.” The mild-mannered Dutchman also embraced the role with the zeal of a maestro half his age. He led the CSO’s first tour to China and made its first recording on the CSO Resound label, featuring Mahler’s Third Symphony.
In an October 2006 interview, Haitink describes how his musical interests were shaped by his wartime childhood in Amsterdam. He was an 11-year-old violin student when Nazi Germany overran the Netherlands. “Amsterdam was a very Jewish town,” he recalls. “I lost some very good friends.” The Concertgebouw Orchestra meanwhile continued to perform during a frigid winter of food shortages and no electricity.
Some of Haitink’s dry wit surfaces in other interviews. When asked in an October 2011 interview why he hadn’t conducted Haydn’s The Creation until then, the conductor, then 82, replied, “I have strange things in my character. I’m not a schemer. I take things how they come.” Reviewing a CSO performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, Patner calls Haitink “authoritative without being dictatorial, sympathetic while maintaining a point of view, thoughtful without being pedantic and delicate without timidity,” adding that the conductor “wanted to meet the CSO’s players at a mountaintop of artistry that they would share with the composer.”
Riccardo Muti, music director, 2010 to the present
Patner avidly covered the courtship dance that brought Riccardo Muti to the CSO as its 10th music director, starting in the 2010-11 season. “It’s astonishing that I have not come here for 32 years,” Muti remarked in a September 2007 radio interview with Patner (he had other responsibilities, of course, including posts at Milan’s La Scala and the Philadelphia Orchestra).
The interview charts the almost cinematic story of Muti’s southern Italian roots, beginning with his auspicious piano audition for the conservatory in Bari, directed at the time by Nino Rota. Muti later shares his enthusiasm for deep research, unpacking the texts in Verdi’s Otello and Macbeth, for two examples. When the CSO performed in his native Naples in 2012, “Muti was received as a celebrity,” Patner reported, “complete with paparazzi and impromptu TV and radio news conferences at his dressing room door.”
In later reviews, Patner identified new traits, including “Muti pianissimos” and the CSO’s “newly flexible” sound (occasional gripes are registered, too). After his death, Patner was eulogized not only in Chicago artistic circles but in the broader classical music field. In the book’s final WFMT interview, Muti recalled, “In my hotel, when I did a concert, two days later [reviews of opening-night concerts Thursday would be published in print on Saturday] I was waiting for the Sun-Times to read what Andrew wrote about my concert. I will miss him as a critic, but especially as a friend and a man of culture.”
A New York-based writer, Brian Wise also is the producer for the CSO Radio broadcasts.