Friday, April 10, 2009

Zzzzzzz 2

The other day, Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music had a posting called Too Big to Fail. He starts off with the banks' role in the current economic crisis, and goes on to discuss the dominant role of a few sizable institutions - orchestras and opera companies, mostly - in our musical life. It's an excellent posting, and I hope you'll read the whole thing. But here's the nut graf for what I want to say:
The more egregious effect, however, is on the music itself. A commission for orchestra is rare and an orchestra is a large and expensive institution, and composed as it is of a mass of people with well-practiced working habits, even quite talented people, tends to learn new things slowly, so rehearsal time is precious. Consequently, presenters tend to play safe with the orchestra, the musical institution "too big to fail," and play it safe by choosing composers with track records for playing it safe and working successfully with other orchestras (remember second grade: "plays well with others"? diplomacy is ofen a real substitute for real musical interest). The chosen few composers, in turn, protect their track records by providing just enough novelty ear candy to maintain the aura of the new while fundamentally remaining in the safety zone in terms of both performance difficulty and audience receptivity.
Manyof you might remember the Mostly Mozart Festival of yore, under Gerard Schwarz: lots of Mozart, with ventures into Baroque and other Classical-era repertory. Then along came Louis Langree a few years ago, and suddenly you could find mini-festivals of Magnus Lindberg, daring stagings of rare operas, and so on, along with a revitalization of the orchestra and lots of new guests. Last year's MMF included the American premieres of works by Saariaho and Lindberg; in 2006, I heard the premiere of Lindberg's violin concerto and ninety minutes of his chamber music with ICE.

A few weeks ago I got the MMF's announcement for this year's festival, and I wanted to cry. They're having a back-to-the-roots year, and if I don't cry, I will simply fall asleep. They're focussing on Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssoh, like everyone else this year. There's a fair amount of Brahms, too. OH GOD PLEASE SPARE US.

The most daring work on the schedule appears to be John Adams's A Flowering Tree. I have already stated rather loudly what I think of it, but consider Adams within the context Daniel Wolf outlines, and you'll see some reasons why I wish MMF had chosen some other recent work to feature. Adams is safe; he is well-known and widely commissioned; hardly anyone will be upset to have one of his big pieces on the schedule.

Is there other 20th or 21st century music to be heard? Well, I see Britten's Serenade for Horn, Tenor, and Strings and Ligeti's Chamber Concerto (on a program with Haydn and Mozart). ICE is doing an all-Adams program.

And that's it: the kind of scheduling that puts me to sleep and gives classical music its reputation for timidity and living in the past. You would have to pay me to attend.


Paul H. Muller said...

I read the Daniel Wolf post and I agree.

Others have pointed this out, but the size and nature of the typical orchestra predisposes it to a late romantic repertory. If Steve Reich can make an hour of music for 18 musicians, why do we need 70? But if we have 70 musicians on the payroll, why do we need Steve Reich?

The bigger names in late 20th century music have all written effectively for large orchestras - including operas - but they made their original mark in a much different way.

The orchestra in the 21st century is an endagnered species because it truly belongs to a different time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I do not agree! Composers stand ready and willing to write for the orchestra: I've heard a few excellent new works for big orchestra in the last few years. Orchestras just need to have the guts to play and commission new music (and their audiences the strength and openness to listen).

pjwv said...

While agreeing generally with your point, I'm going to disagree a bit about Adams (and as you know I had a very different reaction to A Flowering Tree from yours -- that is, I loved it). If Adams is safe, then that's only happened in the past few years (maybe since his 9/11 piece?), and I say good for him if he's getting commissions. But I think there would still be complaints and controversy if the big piece of his on the schedule was Death of Klinghoffer -- in other words, he's not quite fully tamed. As for scheduling a Flowering Tree specifically, as you know it was written as part of a festival celebrating Mozart, who is an acknowledged inspiration for the piece, so it seems to me more appropriate for a Mostly Mozart festival than some random modern piece (though the pieces you suggest of course are not random and would also work well). But this is a quibble on your main point, which I agree with completely -- when you're threatened, you should be bold, not safe.

sfmike said...

What Patrick said.

Henry Holland said...

They're focusing on Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssohn, like everyone else this year. There's a fair amount of Brahms, too. OH GOD PLEASE SPARE US

I feel your pain. :-)

Totally agree with your comment at 9:26. There's plenty of excellent music being written for large orchestra, but it's not faux-romanticism --Jennifer Higdon, I'm looking right at you-- so it doesn't get played in the US. You know how people fantasize about buying a mansion, fast car and all that when they win the lottery? I fantasize about winning the lottery and then paying the Cleveland Orchestra or Boston Symphony to play

Birtwistle: Earth Dances and Exody
Lindberg: Concerto for Orchestra
Pintscher: Five Orchestral Pieces
Saariaho: Orion
Kyburz: Noesis


BTW, went to the opening night of Braunfel's Die Vogel and it was a lovely evening. A nice spare production, lots of creatively deployed color, some wonderful singing (esp. hunkentenor Brandon Jovanovich), typically wonderful conducting by James Conlon and most of all, Braunfel's beautiful, ravishing opera. The place was only 3/4 full and I again shake my head about how there's always complaints that they do the same thing, but when something lovely and totally tonal comes along, there's entire rows of empty seats.

I do feel sorry for the orchestra too, they have a 1:00 pm curtain for Die Walkure tomorrow. They have whole months where nothing is going on then cram two productions in to the same space. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

faux-romanticism --Jennifer Higdon, I'm looking right at you

As they say in the Sanctified church: teach!

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Henry and rootlesscosmo - why do you not both have your own blogs??? You are both great commentators!)

Patrick, you know, I'd managed to forget the origins of A Flowering Tree entirely. You are right on those grounds that it's appropriate for the MMF. Yes, Adams gets plenty of commissions and as far as I can tell, makes a living as a composer. Part of that living certainly includes work curating festivals, being composer-in-residence, and conducting, but he evidently makes enough money that he does not depend on an academic teaching position.

pjwv said...

I guess the main point I wanted to make, and I didn't formulate it quite concisely enough when leaving my original comment, is: There needs to be more of a space between being the young rebel no one will program and being the stately monument no one really listens to.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'll drink to that.