Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Head. Wall. Bang.

Earlier this week, Anne Midgette had an excellent article in the NY Times about the disappearing classical music audience, how orchestras sell tickets, and related issues. (It ran on June 25 and will be free for one week from that date.)

Today's Times prints several letters to the editor responding to Midgette's article. I'm happy to see a music professor lamenting the fossilized classical concert format and calling for greater flexibility in programming, and a historian discussing the marginalization of classical music in the United States.

It's dismaying, though, to read the claims by a professional violinist - a member of the Houston Symphony - that critics "castigate" performers who play masterpieces and that the art form tries to "relegate its masterpieces to the trash heap."

It's too bad the Times doesn't ask letter-writers to provide evidence to back up their claims. Just who are the critics the letter writer is thinking of? Where are the performing organizations that are banning Beethoven? (And why would she mind if, say, a new music ensemble eschews 18th century music?) How can an art form do anything to its masterpieces, anyway? Isn't she talking about musical institutions and performing organizations?

Now, I have to confess that I myself, a sometime critic, have castigated the San Francisco Symphony a couple of times for its programming. I thought it was a mistake to match the "Emperor" concerto with Webern and Hartmann, and the Beethoven violin concerto with Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music. My problem wasn't with programming Beethoven, however; it was with programming, in general, where the works don't illuminate each other in some interesting or telling way. (Yes, I realize this kind of programming sometimes has to do with which soloists are available when, what they want to play, who is conducting, and so on. There's no way to please everybody!)

But it's truly unfortunate that a professional violinist apparently doesn't have an interest in creating a living classical musical culture in this country. That means programming new and 20th centurey music, supporting living composers, and communicating with the audience about new music and why it's important - not just playing familiar music by the safely dead.

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