The Past Future Present

In March, 2020, just as the world was closing down, two concert road trips were lost to me. One was to Chicago, to see the Chicago Symphony play Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony under the direction of quirky, intense Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and was to also feature a visit to the Robie House, recently completely restored. The other was to be to Cincinnati to hear Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8 and to perhaps visit the Netherland Hotel, an Art Deco gem.

When Chicago announced their upcoming season last year, the ‘Leningrad’ was back on the schedule–but under a new conductor, former London Symphony director Vladimir Jurowski. Gergiev’s support of Vladimir Putin had made him persona non grata in the West; Jurowski, on the other hand–Russian born, but also with Ukrainian roots and of Jewish ancestry, and associated with several Western orchestras–was unequivocal in his censure of the Russian leader. Somewhere along the way, the piece at the heart of the concert changed, too, over to the darker, much less overtly political 8th Symphony. I kept the concert on my radar, because as much as hearing the famed Chicago brass play the ‘Leningrad’ would have been a dream, seeing the same orchestra under Jurowski’s baton for the 8th was still hugely tempting (his interpretation of Shostakovich’s 14th symphony is my absolute favourite), but in a season where I had gone to New York twice, it was a not insignificant outlay of funds.

Then I made the decision to not consider Pennsic this year, and suddenly a box seat in Chicago became possible. It was almost as if my two original trips were merging. There would be time for the Robie House as well, and instead of an art deco treasure, I decided to drive first to Springfield, IL to visit the Dana Thomas House, a renowned example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style that had previously been too far out of the way to consider. As planned, I’d drive first to Springfield, stay overnight, catch the first tour the next morning, then drive to Chicago, tour the Robie, then check into my hotel and drive downtown for the concert. Yes, that was a lot of things in one day, with a lot of dependencies on things like traffic in an unfamiliar city. (In Toronto, evening rush hour traffic is as bad inbound as it is outbound). But the tours were only an hour each, and there was a decent amount of buffer in the schedule. I booked the earliest Dana Thomas tour available and the final Robie House tour, and checked the drive time between each location. (I may no longer be working as a project manager, but I’ve still got a knack for scheduling.)

I had decided a few days before not to push to get the red silk version of the 1930s jacket done for the trip–the golden brown faux dupionni version, made as a test piece, had turned out so well that I wanted to wear it. For some reason I associate the number 8 with the colours gold or orange, so it made sense. (This may leave the silk version for a future concert.)

I: Dana-Thomas

The drive to Springfield on Wednesday was long, but smooth. I binged Shostakovich symphonies and ran into no traffic delays of any significance. When I turned south on I-55 towards Springfield, I finally reached a section that I had never driven before. After a short drive through riverine landscapes produced by the confluence of the Illinois, Kankakee, and Des Plains rivers and populated by massive Amazon warehouses, the landscape flattened out into endless prairie dotted by wind turbines. This area is contiguous with the prairie lands of Iowa and the feel was much the same. Springfield is the capital of Illinois and the home of Lincoln’s presidential library, but it’s quite a small city–at a little over 114,300 at the last census, it’s about twice the size of the Ohio Springfield–and the two cities feel a little alike (not only because they both house a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style masterpiece). There was just something about the slightly worn, empty feel of both places. However, Springfield, OH does not have a capitol building with a lovely dome, was not the site of Barack Obama’s announcement of his run for the presidency, nor was it the point of departure for the Donner Party. And the Dana-Thomas house definitely outshines the perfectly lovely Westcott House–particularly in the sheer quantity and intact nature of its art glass, but also for its interesting transitional structure, making it unlike any other Wright Prairie-style home I have visited. And it was worth the detour to see it, even if there were no interior photos allowed and no gift shop (although visiting their webpage, apparently there was a gift shop across the street that I missed…)

What was so special about it? The house was designed in 1902, so very early for a Prairie-style house. It was built for Susan Lawrence Dana, who was an heiress and who basically gave Wright an unlimited budget. She was a philanthropist as well, and loved to host huge parties. Unlike most other Wright houses, this one has an impressive front entrance. Upon stepping inside, your eye is drawn first to a statue in the foyer–the original of the Flower in a Crannnied Wall sculpture by Richard Bock that he would use again at his own home at Taliesin (and which I have a copy of). Beyond that–assuming the curtains behind are opened–the eye is drawn to a fireplace with a barrel arch, mimicking the arch in the entryway itself. Oh, and as you came through that entryway, above you is art glass in a butterfly pattern. (Butterflies and sumac are everywhere in this house.) To get to this reception area, you might first leave your coat in a basement room (noting the full sized bowling alley and billiards room on your left) before then heading up a short set of stairs. The reception area is right at the centre, but on your left is a huge, barrel-vaulted dining area absolutely exploding with art glass and a burbling fountain you can hear from the entryway, and to your right a living room absolutely filled with light (it faces east, and it was morning) from a huge central window flanked by smaller windows. Most of the furniture is original. Art glass sconces and hanging lights are everywhere, and there is a sense of the vertical in this house, with its soaring two-story tall dining room, flanked by overlooking halls with curtains which could be opened or closed, as well as a musicians’ gallery. The dining room is also decorated with panel paintings in a Japanese style depicting autumn sumac.

The Japanese influences in the house are obvious, from the exterior corners which lift in the manner of temples, to stylized torii gates inside framing the dining room. One is always going up and down steps, making the house feel both open and maze-like. There’s even a very Victorian room left over from the previous house on the property, which Susan Lawrence Dana insisted on retaining as a memory of her parents. Upstairs, there’s a primary bedroom with fabulous built-in wardrobes and beds. The room looks east and has with a peaked roof; from outside, it gives the impression of one continuous window with the living room below. And those windows are probably the most spectacular in the entire house. There’s a long enclosed conservatory (over top of the bowling alley) that leads to a set of stairs. Down them, and you’re in a library with stacks. Up them, you enter another barrel-vaulted room–a “studio” that could host concerts or plays or art exhibits–whatever captured the hostess’ fancy.

The house website has some gorgeous photos of the house here, but honestly, even they do not do it justice. The place is absolutely aglow with the greens and golds of the art glass, and the barrel vaults make it unique (Wright only used one other barrel vault in any of his homes, and that was in his own Home and Studio in Oak Park.) However, I did get to take ample outdoor shots of the home:

Susan Lawrence Dana’s own story in some ways paralleled that of Darwin Martin, Wright’s later patron, in that she lost everything in the stock market crash and, broke, had to leave the home in 1935, and it would sit unoccupied for years. She’d also married three times–losing both her first husband and two infant children; her second marriage was to an opera singer half her age, who died after about a year, and her third marriage ended in divorce. The house was sold off in 1943 to a local medical book publisher, who was very much a Wright fan, purchased the house (including most of the furniture, which had not sold in the auction) and turned it into offices, keeping almost everything intact. When he died, the publishing company stayed in the house until 1981, and then the house went on the market. At that point, parts of it were starting to be sold off or stolen, so the governor of Illinois helped raise $1 million to purchase the house (although a few pieces did make it into the hands of art dealers before he could). Subsequently the state restored the house and re-acquired a number of the pieces that had been sold off. What this means now is that touring this house was completely free.

As it turned out, I already own a lot of swag from this house. I have earrings, the Flower in a Crannied Wall sculpture, and most especially, the watch I got last Christmas with the sumac design (and which, of course, I wore for my tour.)

II: Robie

I made it back to Chicago and the Robie House with time to spare. I had anticipated a search for parking, as on previous visits finding a spot on the very busy University of Chicago campus was a challenge. But I found a spot literally across the street from the house. This meant I was able to visit the gift shop first, where I (ironically) found a book on the Dana-Thomas house, as well as socks and a sweatshirt.

I will let the photos speak for this one, and mention as well that I had not expected to get to see the bedrooms–the last basic tour had not included them. I also found out why there has been little attempt to furnish the home–since Robie was only in the house for a year, apparently it was never fully furnished (certainly not with much of the Wright-designed furniture that was planned.) The house was very quickly re-used as offices and as a result, its existence as an actual home was exceedingly brief. The Robie is probably the most light-filled of any Wright Prairie-style house, and the most open in design.

After this, there was a bit of hair-raising drive in rush hour traffic–although passing first through the area where the 1892 World’s Fair was– to get to my hotel room, but I managed it in 45 minutes, checked in, changed–and then found that it would only take about 20 minutes to get downtown. As it worked out, unlike Toronto, inbound traffic during rush hour is nothing compared to outbound. And there was no hunting for the garage where I’d prepaid for parking–the entrance was in the middle of Michigan Ave.

III: Jurowski and Shostakovich 8

I arrived in time to catch the pre-concert lecture. I’ve attended these a few times with various orchestras, and the only one that’s come close in terms of quality was that given in Cleveland before the performance of Shostakovich’s violin concerto no. 1. The lecturer, a local music professor, was able to not only play audio clips of the work, but to demonstrate various aspects of the structure of the works on the piano. One of the “wow” moments was when he showed how Shostakovich hid a quotation from the ‘Leningrad’ symphony’s “invasion theme” in the first section of the symphony. He also showed how a simple little two note motif was just everywhere in the work, including in the final movement where it transforms from a minor drop to a major lift. He also mentioned that while Prokofiev is known for his melody, Shostakovich is known for his musical architecture–and given what I had just spent the day doing, that thought really struck me–and it’s absolutely true. As Wright would have said, “form follows function.”

After the talk, I hit the gift shop –apparently, I was not the only Canadian there that night, and we talked a little about the CSO’s visit to Koerner Hall earlier in the year (which I had missed for another concert.) I then settled into my seat. I had sprung for a box seat, and as it turned out, there were only two of us sitting in the box, so I got the front row.

The concert opened with pianist Martin Helmchen playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25. It was completely delightful (and thanks to the lecture beforehand, I heard things I might have otherwise missed.) It shared a key–and a bit of the grandeur–of his ‘Jupiter’ symphony. Particularly striking was a run of rapid-fire octave chords near the end.

I also watched Jurowski’s conducting style. He’s a thin, angular man of indeterminate age, appearing simultaneously young and older all at once. (He is apparently 51). He has a shock of wiry, steely grey hair, about collar length and blunt cut, wearing a dark tunic-style suit with a notched collar that almost gives a priestly appearance. The NY Times once said that Jurowski resembled Rudolf Nureyev and approached conducting with “balletic intensity.” That seemed to be an accurate description. His style seemed effortless (in contrast to Gergiev, who notoriously sweats profusely). No move was wasted, and his hands were especially expressive, always in dialogue with the orchestra.

I had recalled that Jurowski’s father was a friend of Shostakovich, something confirmed in an article regarding the concerts while putting together this piece. Jurowski, who was born in 1972, apparently did actually meet Shostakovich. And a quote from the article was quite revelatory about the switch to the 8th symphony for this concert: ““The Eighth Symphony is one of his most powerful, sustained and personal creations. And, of course, being composed in 1943, it [sends] an unmistakable and unavoidable message to both the players and the audiences of today. I hope I will have to say very little. As a man with Russian and Ukrainian blood, the music will say more than I ever could.”

And it did. The 8th, which I’ve talked about before as having deep personal significance to me, is not normally a piece that makes me cry–and indeed, I didn’t really precisely cry this time, either. Instead, it was something else. The amount of time I had shivers during the concert was astounding. The 8th starts dark, with a murmuring in the basses and cellos, and so much of that first movement uses that same dark palette of orchestral colour. In recordings, this can come across as muddy, and even the best recordings do not capture the incredible, rich, vibrating resonance of the low strings like this performance did. The famous Chicago Symphony brass was also on point, particularly the trumpets in this first movement. The heart-rending scream in the middle of the first movement nearly blew me out of my seat. I had my eye on the cor anglais player, knowing what was in store, and his long solo did not disappoint. I loved how in the middle of it, other woodwinds briefly enter to support him, as if to give him courage. The orchestra also excelled in powerful pianisssimos–the kind where the quiet is intense. Another real standout was the piccolo, particularly in the 2nd and 4th movements, and another demonstration of absolute perfection was in the work of the xylophonist (who I believe was the first chair percussionist–and a rare woman in that role). I hadn’t realized just how often two instruments that sit on opposite sides of the orchestra are synched up in this work.

Another highlight was the beginning of the 4th movement passacaglia, when, after the huge crash that marks the transition from the preceding, frenetic allegro, the low brass stated the passacaglia theme for the first time, and over the course of those first few bars, the lifeblood audibly seemed to drain from the orchestra, going from fff to ppp as the low strings picked up the repeated theme. This is yet another part where this music demands live performance to appreciate just how astounding this moment is. When Shostakovich talked about “how much blood the C major {that marks the transition into the 5th movement, later] cost him”, this is the figurative bleeding out that will lead to that moment. Once again, a haunting, barely heard (but perfectly so) horn solo, and gorgeous work from the piccolo and flutes, as well as some gorgeous, shimmering string swells underneath it all. And then, that C major transition, carried on a note by the clarinets as the bassoon stated the gentle first theme before playfully skipping off afterward. I’ve sometimes given this final movement short shrift because of its lighter feel, but there’s a huge climax in the middle that is an act of recall of just where we’ve come from over the past hour, including a final outburst of the brass and drums, before we hear a gorgeous, lyrical solo from the cello….and then: that ending. Those final, gentle, searching notes from the flute over barely audible strings, trailing off in C major–a victory of survival. And the audience hung suspended while Jurowski allowed the sound to trail off, morendo, into eternity, leaping to their feet in applause once he dropped his arms. I have rarely seen such an immediate and universal standing ovation, and it was well-earned. This Eighth was perfection.

I had almost forgotten about a cherished tradition on trips into Michigan: A visit to Bilbo’s in Kalamazoo. I timed it perfectly, so that I arrived when they were opening, and got to have both salad (with dressing to take home) and pizza. Bilbo’s is eternal.

Second coda (what, is this Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 4?)

I missed Coronation today, although I helped put together the ceremony, because I was competing in a Toastmasters competition–Table Topics, which has always been my best contest. I won that contest, and will now be advancing to the District finals for the third time. It felt really good. Goals this time: Placing at District. We shall see.

And so now, for a while, the concert travelling is over. Not the concerts–I have several to attend over the next few weeks–and not the travelling–there’s Quebec City next week. There may be another big concert trip in my far future, but right now, I am just reveling at what I have been privileged to experience over the past two weeks or so. I’ll be riding this high for some time.