Saturday, September 05, 2015

The 20th C. Symphony and Other Canons

Alex Ross has a fine article posted at TNY about the 20th c. symphony, with a follow-up blog post. Between them, they are an implicit criticism of orchestras' failure to program symphonies outside the usual 18th and 19th century suspects. He links to Bob Shingleton's On an Overgrown Path blog, and I definitely encourage reading those links.

Alex writes about a number of composers, mentioning those whose symphonies have come closest to entering the standard rep. SFS programs a couple of Shostakovich's symphonies annually, and I'd say he's awfully close to standard rep at this point.

For me, the most bizarre omission from orchestral programming is Ralph Vaughan Williams's symphonies. The composer is represented primarily by the Tallis Variations, The Lark Ascending, and other comparatively lightweight works, while his symphonies largely go unplayed. They are great works, serious and more interesting than the RVW you usually hear played in the US. I've seen the Fourth twice, conducted weakly by Botstein and wonderfully by Yan Pascal Tortelier, and the London, in a terrific performance by Osmo Vanska. I'm particularly astonished that SFS, with its magnificent Symphony Chorus, has not yet performed A Sea Symphony, which sets poems, or parts of poems, from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

These symphonies also pass current marketing-driven requirements for "accessibility." They are conventionally beautiful, even when bleak, and are works that a conservative audience is likely to find acceptable.

Elsewhere in discussions of canonical repertory, Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera, published a truly foolish article asserting that the big problem in opera today is that singers don't emote enough. Okay, maybe we are attending different operas; I don't see this, and moreover what I do see is a lot of superb ensemble work, which, in a theatrically and dramatically sophisticated world, should not be overlooked or denigrated.

He goes on to make the absurd claim that Maria Callas and Leonie Rysanek couldn't get work today because of their combination of vocal instability and dramatic commitment. This is patent bullshit; I can name more than a few singers with erratic vocalism and great dramatic commitment, starting with Evelyn Herlitzius and proceeding to singers like Lauren Flanigan, Gwyneth Jones, and others.

Lastly, he says that he doesn't think the operatic canon is limited. Well, I call bullshit on him again. Here are useful statistics about most-performed operas and composers from Operabase.com, that immense storehouse of performance information. Read those tables and weep.

Needless to say, you can find similar statistics about what gets played at US symphony orchestras, via the League of American Orchestras. You'll cry when you look at their reports as well.


Anonymous said...

I'd just like to put in a little plug here for my blog post series, "The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of" (for certain values of "you", of course), which covered Kurt Atterberg, Cornelis Dopper, Joly Braga Santos, Alan Hovhaness, and Malcolm Arnold before I ran out of time to do it. Someday I will get on to Granville Bantok and William Grant Still.

Henry Holland said...

My favorites who don't get programmed much, if at all:

Robert Simpson: He's been called a 20th Century Bruckner, that's not a bad description. His 6th & 7th are my favorites, they're on one disc from the Hyperion label.

Arnold Bax: I love his symphonies and tone poems, there's three (!!) cycles of his symphonies available on disc but they're not performed much at all, even in England.

Egon Wellesz: Another conservative modernist, his 9 symphonies are in the lush, late-romantic vein that I like so much.

Hans Werner Henze: I really like the first five, after that it gets kind of iffy for me.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann: He wrote 8 symphonies, they cover a pretty wide range of styles, but it's very powerful stuff.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Alex Ross spoke highly of Simpson in either the article or blog post, or maybe on Twitter. I should get his symphonies; there used to be a set at Berkshire Record Outlet cheap but with a reliable conductor. However, 20th C. Btruckner is NOT a recommendation. I mean, I turned in my SFS ticket last season when Semyon Bychkov canceled, because I thought Bychkov might make a believer out of me.

I heard one Hartmann symphony at SFS in 2005, on a program that I was discussing on Twitter within the last two days because of Anne Midgette's article about the Steinway monopoly. Elsewhere on the program, Garrick Ohlsson played a Fazioli piano that I, my friend Mike, and Joshua Kosman all hated!

The Hartmann was great, though.

Henry Holland said...

I understand, I'm not a big Bruckner fan apart from his 8th symphony. I've also lost interest in Mahler's stuff.

Anonymous said...

This Bruckner fan never found himself too enthused by Robert Simpson in his capacity as an epigone of Bruckner. So a non-Bruckner fan might not dislike him on that account. Now, Saburo Moroi (at least in some of his works ) ...