The precarious place of American music within the classical repertory has once again been made clear by the announcement of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra tour to Japan that includes not a single American composition.

There can be no doubt the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has long been one of the great orchestras in the world. Led by Frederick Stock from 1905 to 1942, Fritz Reiner from 1953 to 1963, and Sir Georg Solti (who will retire at the end of the 1990-91 season) from 1969 to the present day, the Chicago has regularly set high standards for musical seriousness and performance excellence. Indeed, the recordings made by Reiner with the orchestra, old as they are, are still much sought by music lovers and audiophiles alike. Now the orchestra is at a turning point: from the 1991-92 season onward, its music director will be Daniel Barenboim, the much-recorded Israeli pianist and conductor.

The current concerts in Japan mark the Chicago’s third trip to the Orient.

The current concerts in Japan mark the Chicago’s third trip to the Orient. This time the orchestra, under the direction both of Solti and Barenboim, will confine its activities to Japan, playing twelve concerts in all, including six in Tokyo (three of them in the new Suntory Hall) and the remainder in Yokohama, Kurashiki, Osaka (two), Nagoya, and Sendai. The tour is sponsored by Motorola: $900,000 of the $2.15 million budget comes from concert fees, leaving the remainder, or $1.25 million, to be underwritten. Motorola’s involvement with the tour is described by a press release in simple enough terms: “Although we have differed with Japan on international trade matters, Motorola holds the people of Japan in very high regard, especially our many fine customers. Bringing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Japan is an expression of our appreciation for the many fine relationships we are building in Japan as well as our growing prosperity.”

But the symphonic expression of this appreciation demands more than merely a well-led, distinguished orchestra. It also requires a well-made, distinguished choice of music to be played. On this occasion the Chicago is playing splendid works by Beethoven (the Symphony no. 5 and the Egmont Overture, conducted by Solti), Brahms (all four symphonies, conducted by Barenboim), Bruckner, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, and, in a bow to Japanese musical life, Toru Takemitsu. There is no representation of the pride of our American symphonic composition—the music of (to name only the best-known composers) Barber, Copland, Hanson, Harris, Piston, and William Schuman. One looks in vain, too, for the younger American composers whose commissioning the Chicago has made so much of recently.

Perhaps the restricted menu of the current tour repertory is no more than an accident; one surely hopes so. What is so disturbing, however, is that the exclusion of American composition may be no accident at all, and that the selection of Daniel Barenboim as Chicago’s music director represents an unspoken acceptance of the false notion that America is only a consumer, not a producer, of distinguished Western classical music. If this false notion is accepted in music-loving Chicago, it cannot be long before it will creep into the consciousness of those cities, like New York, now looking for (or about to look for) new conductors.

This notion of our musical inferiority is not only false in purely musical terms, it is also damaging to the position of classical music in the United States. Presenting this body of masterworks as a European art form in whose creation we as Americans have had no part is a sure way to kill our still strong, but increasingly beleaguered, love for this great art. One wishes the new orchestral regime in Chicago luck—but musical luck also requires an appreciation of musical value, even if that value is American in origin. The next Chicago tour programs will bear careful watching indeed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 8, on page 3
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