For Artist and Audience, the ‘Cycle’ is the Gateway to Another World

By Wynne Delacoma

The contradictions are stunning.

We are, as we’re constantly reminded, living our lives at supersonic speeds, racing in all directions. We express ourselves in 140-character tweets, fume when a computer file takes three seconds to download, and demand next-day delivery for our online orders (since shopping online is, of course, much faster than heading out to a brick-and-mortar retail store).

Yet we luxuriate in spending hours at a time on a single experience we deem worthwhile. Children, supposedly afflicted by skyrocketing rates of attention deficit disorder, devoured the very long Harry Potter books in marathon sittings. A weekend spent binge-watching multiple seasons of House of Cards or Downton Abbey is many people’s idea of heaven. Restaurants have long waiting lists of customers willing to sit for lengthy, multicourse, insanely expensive meals with menus (no substitutions allowed) set by a superstar chef.

We’re desperately in a hurry. Until we’re not.

There are a number of terms for this phenomenon of slowing down and losing ourselves in the moment: “total immersion,” being “in the zone,” being “in the groove.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became a pop culture rock star in 1990 with his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a study about the joy of losing ourselves in an engrossing task, whether the task is making art, playing, or working.

Emerson String QuartetWhatever the term, we all know it when we experience it. And this year’s Ravinia season is offering multiple opportunities to take the plunge. The Emerson String Quartet will perform all six of Haydn’s Op. 76 quartets in the Martin Theatre on July 5. Violinist Miriam Fried, once her directorship of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute Program for Piano and Strings is wrapped up for the summer, will perform Bach’s three masterful pairs of solo sonatas and partitas over two concerts on August 17 in Bennett Gordon Hall. The Chiara String Quartet will offer Bartók’s complete string quartets—six works—over two nights, September 78, in Bennett Gordon Hall.

Plus, Beethoven, that protean composer, will be the focus of three different cycles in Bennett Gordon Hall. Jonathan Biss will launch a three-year survey of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas with 14 of the pieces divided between August 18, 20, and 22. Cellist Adolfo Gutiérrez Arenas and pianist Christopher Park will perform Beethoven’s five cello sonatas on August 16. And the Pacifica Quartet, acclaimed for its full cycles of quartets by Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, and Elliott Carter, will offer perhaps the ultimate Beethoven immersion. They will perform all of his string quartets over five concerts in a single weekend, August 2628. There will be two performances each on the 27th and 28th.

There’s something magical about turning ourselves over to a performance focused on a single composer or a marathon work. When the doors close and the lights go down, our normal world disappears and we can find ourselves in 19th-century Vienna or 20th-century New York or 18th-century Leipzig. Listening to a composer’s voice for hours, we can’t help but come to understand more deeply what his music—not to mention his world, often so remote from ours—is really about.

Miriam Fried“What interests me most about the six Bach partitas and sonatas,” says Fried, “is the fact that they’re so lively and so full of energy and joy and motion and dance and inventiveness. I say to my students that we have this terrible image of Bach. We have this one particular famous picture where he looks slightly ugly and slightly fat and he’s wearing this ridiculous wig. We think of him like a blob. But on the contrary, he started writing these works when he was barely 25 and he finished writing them when he was 35, which is hardly old, even in that period. He was a very, very ambitious, curious, ‘with-it’ guy.”

While Fried is happily restudying these Bach works she has played for decades, she is also using 21st-century technology to pass her passion for them on to her students at the New England Conservatory in Boston and audiences beyond Ravinia. She is developing a series of lectures on the partitas and sonatas, which will eventually be presented along online with master classes on the works.

Jonathan BissHowever, Biss, her son, has already taken his complete Beethoven piano sonata project to the web. Working with Coursera, a company that collaborates with assorted schools to offer online courses, he posted lectures about five of the sonatas in September 2013. “I’m a teacher in general, in addition to being a player,” says Biss, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “I love to teach. I think that the topic of how a performer relates to the music he plays is objectively interesting. The audience doesn’t really know what goes into it. I’m not doing this from a musicologist’s or a historian’s point of view. My point of view is that of the person who is spending his life working on the pieces.” And these online lectures have drawn a large audience. “We thought that would be it, those five,” says Biss. “But the response was so completely shocking to me and everyone around me. I thought maybe a couple hundred people would watch them; but then, we were getting ten thousand and by now over a hundred thousand people have watched them. The response was so heart-warming we made the decision to continue.”

Performing Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as a complete cycle is a pinnacle of any pianist’s career, and distinguished soloists have been tackling them as a long-term project for many decades. “There’s this sense of endless variety of expression,” says Biss. “The language changes not only from the early period to the late period, but also from piece to piece in fundamental ways. In terms of character, there’s such an incredible amount of ground covered. Working on the complete cycle you get this incredibly in-depth view of his personality, his concerns, but you don’t ever feel that you’re repeating yourself.”

Pacifica Quartet“There’s no better way for us to get to know the composition, the character, the style of a composer,” says Masumi Per Rostad, violist of the Pacifica Quartet, “than to really delve into as much repertoire as possible. We learn so much in these kinds of experiences that it makes us hunger for more. Performing them in some sort of condensed period makes us think of them in another way.” Rostad recalls that when the quartet was preparing its Elliott Carter cycle—which was performed in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and other cities between 2003 and 2008—they were rehearsing 10 hours a day for six weeks, playing nothing but Carter’s knotty quartets. Then, in a concert, they performed a Mozart quartet. “And I remember,” Rostad says, “the Mozart sounded so strange. It was like the language was so foreign all of a sudden. That’s an experience I will always cherish.”

My first immersive musical experience is a vivid memory. I was a 20-something on vacation in London, seeing my first Wagner opera: the five-hour long Siegfried, the third part of Wagner’s four-opera The Ring of the Nibelung. I had little idea what the story was about, and (of course) the performance at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was sung in German, well before the advent of English supertitles. It started at 6:00 p.m., and I was enthralled. When I curiously glanced at my watch after what seemed like an hour or so, I was astounded to see it was 11:30 p.m. (Famed Hollywood film director Billy Wilder comically described the opposite situation in a 1982 interview with the New York Times. “The kind of picture I hate,” he said, “the picture where it starts at 8, and at midnight when I look at my watch, it’s 8:15.”)

In my 30-plus years as a classical music critic, I’ve had a generous share of musical marathons that launched me into the zone. The ever-audacious LaSalle Quartet’s plunge into the modernist Second Viennese School with concerts of string works by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern in the early 1970s in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. Yo-Yo Ma giving a one-day survey of Bach’s solo cello suites at Symphony Center. In the early 1980s, the cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soloist Alfred Brendel led by James Levine—then Ravinia’s music director, re-creating his superlative performances with Brendel at the festival from the late ’70s—in Orchestra Hall.

What makes the idea of immersion so exciting is that it can happen in any field. When the Lyric Opera of Chicago mounted its first week-long cycle of Wagner’s Ring in 1996, my husband, a rabid baseball fan, came with me to all four operas. It was, he said later, like following each game in the World Series. You think about it all the next day. You wonder what would have happened if that play had been successful, and you worry that a supporting player dug himself into a hole he can’t get out of. And you think about what’s going to happen the next night—what’s the opposition got up its sleeve, and can the hero keep it up? “That’s all you think about while the Series is on,” he said. “You go to work, but all you’re thinking about is the Series.”
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. If the baseball gods decree, maybe this year it will sweep the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series berth since 1908. Without a doubt, however, it will be in the air at Ravinia this summer.

Wynne Delacoma was classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006 and has been an adjunct journalism faculty member at Northwestern University. She is a freelance music critic, writer, and lecturer.