By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO – A new composition by Bernard Rands for orchestra, Dream, begins with a pair of very soft, very low, swelling chords with delicate timbral overlays. In the extreme quiet, the gentle whooshes evoke a sleeper breathing. Next comes an intense jolt of nattering strings followed by nearly twelve minutes of music that jumps the synapses with surprising twists and turns.
Dream is aptly named, then. In its world premiere performances through Nov. 5 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under music director Riccardo Muti, Dream was delivered as a beautiful enigma, underscoring Rands’ lifelong exploration of the psyche as “an island in the infinite,” to borrow a phrase from Lorca, among the many poets whose words he has set. Dream made hypnotic sense even as it conjured the bewildering incongruities and bizarre surprises of the sort that come with a brain’s nocturnal housekeeping during the deep-sleep mode.
At 85, Rands is among America’s most distinguished composers. His Canti del Sole, a song cycle for tenor and orchestra based on texts by Quasimodo, Dylan Thomas, and others, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize; his Le Tambourin orchestral suites, which contain material for his 2011 Van Gogh opera Vincent, won Rands a 1986 Friedheim. A forthcoming orchestra piece, Symphonic Fantasy, has been co-commissioned by the Boston and BBC Symphonies for performances in July 2020 at Tanglewood and in December 2020 at the Barbican. And in April 2020, a new opus for Chicago’s Spektral Quartet will be offered with something different – musical responses from each of the nine composers of the Chicago Composers Consortium – which Spektral predicts will be a listening experience “akin to viewing a Brancusi from nine different vantage points.”
The Chicago Symphony commissioned Dream in part to celebrate the British-American composer’s long relationship with the orchestra, which spans more than a quarter century and includes world premieres and major works led by Muti, Pierre Boulez (Le Tambourin and the first Cello Concerto), and Daniel Barenboim (apókryphos). Muti’s friendship with Rands extends back to 1989, during Muti’s Philadelphia Orchestra directorship, when Rands became composer in residence at Muti’s request. In a recent radio interview, Muti said he admired Rands immediately for the European perspective that he brought, and also that Rands had “the courage to express his soul.” To date Muti has conducted more of Rands’ pieces than any other conductor.
For his part, Rands said he became aware of Muti, who is seven years younger, when the composer was studying abroad with Luciano Berio in the ’60s. Berio was doing pathbreaking work with electronics and the human voice at the time; an aspect of his influence is detectable in Rands’ attention to minute aspects of sonic curve and timbre. Rands heard the very young Muti conduct at the arts festival Maggio Musicale in Florence and said he realized right away that the young maestro was special. (There are pictures from Muti’s early days in the clip below.)
The two quickly bonded in Philadelphia, where Rands rarely missed a rehearsal. They lived in the same building near the Academy of Music and dined frequently together, conversing in Italian.
Rands’ fascination with the layered mysteries and elusive truths of the conscious and unconscious human experience – for which he draws heavily from poetry, painting, the soundscape of bells, and the cycles of sun and moon – has won him labels of expressionist, post-impressionist, and even romantic. Although his early music shows the composer assimilating all of the 20th century’s prevailing trends, including post-serial, pop, and electronic explorations, he has long since settled on an approach to form, palette, and overall objective that is, in its striking precision and originality, perhaps closer to Debussy than anyone else. Certainly the score of Dream bears a resemblance. Nearly every one of its musical passages comes with detailed, note-specific instructions, but the resultant effect seems spontaneous and ephemeral.
There are snorts and clarion calls from the brass, lingering lines with an aura of erotic reverie for the double reeds, pulseless expanses, abrupt interruptions, and episodes that seem like lost pieces in a puzzle. Through this emerged the tantalizing sense of a narrative just out of reach, until, toward the end, all seemed to coalesce around a fascinating, throaty melody in the string choir. One might mistake the moment for the clarity of wakefulness – except for an arresting chord at the end that some would identify as reminiscent of Debussy, or others might say James Brown. Is the puzzle triumphantly solved? Will the dreamer remember this dream? The inscrutability of that last sound is a fitting question mark.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago on the Aisle. She was the founding music critic at USA Today and a cultural columnist for the Detroit News. She has written about the arts for The New York Times and a variety of other national publications.