Friday, October 16, 2015

And Now for Some More Ranting

Back in June, in his SFCV news column, It's News to Me, Janos Gereben quoted David Gockley rather extensively on new operas and why there are more of them now. (You'll have to scroll down at the link to the item I'm talking about.)

I gotta say, June was a great month for catching folks at San Francisco Opera saying this kind of thing, and I also gotta say, I'm surprised at David Gockley, whom I consider to be extremely smart and knowledgable, not to mention, musically sophisticated.

There is a lot to argue with in what he says. I'm going to copy over most of the article. If it's something Janos wrote, I have prefaced it with JG. If it's a Gockley quotation, it's indented. My own comments I will preface with [LH].
[JG] Writing in the summer season's program, Gockley says that against heavy odds for producing new works, there has been a resurgence, and he quotes OPERA America statistics comparing the 1960s and '70s with the past 10 years. Why the change?
I trace this resurgence to one phenomenon: the ultimate failure of "serialism" and its atonal offshoots as music that works in the opera house. The Second Viennese School, led by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, lent great genius and prestige to this movement, and it became the music of academia throughout most of the 20th century. But it remained a connoisseur’s delicacy, resisted by large-audience art forms like symphony and opera, especially the latter and particularly in the United States.
[LH: Well, he's wrong about the music of academia. You need to look for an article in Musical Quarterly by Joseph Straus, called "The Myth of Serial 'Tyranny'" for a good rebuttal. But which academia does he mean, in which countries? In which regions of the United States, even? Which composers is he talking about? You can find plenty of nonserialist music composed throughout the whole century, from composers as diverse as Shapero, Martinu, Britten, and Shostakovich and many, many, more.]
[JG] The path from what he calls the failure of serialism to more accessible works, Gockley says, was paved by Philip Glass, "whom I credit as being the Moses that led composers out of the wilderness of this so-called 'modernism.' He developed his own voice and refused to be a prisoner to academic imperatives." (Gockley has commissioned and produced several operas by Glass, including Appomattox in San Francisco.)

[LH: See the above, about composers who, well before Glass, somehow weren't writing music of the Second Viennese School.]
[JG}Led by Glass and fellow minimalists Steve Reich, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Michael Torke, and Michael Nyman, and inspired by opera composers such as Carlisle Floyd and Douglas Moore, Gockley posits, such "neo-melodists" emerged as Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, Mark Adamo, Stewart Wallace, and Chris Theofanidis:
Suddenly, all felt liberated to use their own musical voices. Because their work was better accepted, they were kept busy writing new pieces. They got better at what they did. They built happy relationships with librettists and producers. Glass has 28 operas under his belt, Floyd 12, Heggie five, and Adams eight. There is nothing like experience to improve a composer’s craft, including having the right to fail and being given other chances. 
Opera companies cannot continue rehashing the past. New works refresh the opera-going experience and broaden audiences. Of course, the operas must be successful. Fortunately, there is ample evidence that this is happening and will happen more and more as time goes on.
[LH: Floyd and Moore are among the composers who, long before Glass, were writing nonserial music.]

You really ought to read Nicola Luisotti's remarks from around the same period, about how awful serialist is - and about his own influence on the embarrassing La Ciociara. The interview appeared in SFCV in June.

While you're at it, take a look at Alex Ross's article on conservative programming at the Met, which has a paragraph about Gockley. 

Keep in mind, Gockley and Luisotti are in charge of one of the major US opera houses, and in all of these articles they talk as though audiences are too conservative, too shy, to have their minds open enough to hear, for example, Lulu, which is one of the great monuments of 20th century music. They just can't take anything challenging, or anything that they might have to think about, or that might make them intellectually or musically uncomfortable. 

I honestly find this embarrassing. I understand that the people who have to raise money to fund the arts in the US are in a tough position, between influential patrons, the immense cost of staging opera, the economy, and so on. But opera audiences are diverse: there are people who will go for St. Francois or Jenufa who have no interest in Verdi. There are people who got into opera through heavy-metal rock and who don't want to hear Puccini. There are people who find Baroque opera boring, and people who don't want to hear anything more radical than Britten.

Every season that's overly heavy on Puccini, Verdi, and Mozart is a turn-off for someone who doesn't want to hear Rigoletto or Madama Butterfly for the third, fourth, fifth, Nth time. Every failure to stage challenging operas is an insult to the intelligence and curiosity of the audience - and an admission of failure on the part of opera company marketers that they're not imaginative enough to figure out how to sell new and unusual opera.

Even if you think that serialism is somehow the source of all that is wrong with music in the last century - and really, there are plenty of us who like serial and atonal music - that doesn't explain the failure of opera companies to program composers such as Mascagni (he didn't only write Cavalleria Rusticana), Respighi, Zandonai, Zemlinsky, Schmidt, Nielsen, Martinu, and, of course, Schreker, who wrote non-serial, non-atonal music that ought to be comparatively easy to sell to even conservative audiences.

And for crying out loud - we haven't had a Britten opera at San Francisco since 2004-05.


Phil Fried said...


atrave said...

Very well put, I have been expecting to find your appropriately sharp comments on Glockley and Luisotti's unconscionable opinions on 20th century opera even sooner. It's indeed a shame that US opera companies are taking such a superficial view of a whole century of music. I remember that a few years ago, after the announcement of the new season, I posted on Facebook about the lack of any 20th century opera from the whole season, as well as the previous ones (not counting Puccini, which I incidentally love). The SFO PR thought well of sending a tone-deaf reply that there were three 21st century operas, so, what more should I want? Well, for example, Janacek, Britten, Prokofiev, Strauss, Martinu,...
Three years ago, when many major opera houses around the world were competing with production of Szymanowski's "Krol Roger", I got another robotic reply to my (rhetorical) question on Twitter about ever seeing it in SF, that there were "no plans at this time"...
All in all, I am thankful that other institutions have stepped in in the past seasons to at least give us what Glockley thinks we are not ready for: SF Symphony (Peter Grimes, Bluebeard), West Edge (Turn of the Screw, Lulu), Opera Parallele, and the extraordinary "Wozzeck" conducted by Salonen at Zellerbach Hall three years ago.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It is really inexplicable, although, in fairness, I have to mention Makropoulos and Jenufa, and also that Gockley did want to do a new Peter Grimes and has said in print how much he regrets not having been able to stage it.

The absence of everything else, and the belief that they can't sell it....well, why not??

And thank goodness for other companies picking up the slack. I have heard that MTT has been actively trying to fill some gaps, which doesn't explain Fidelio and the lack of a real opera this year. Well, the incredible Grimes and Bluebeard's Castle make up for a lot.

Anonymous said...

Much of what you write is true. Now that the serial hegemony (if it did exist - I'll get to that below) has retreated to a few academic departments, there's no excuse for a director who regrets its heyday not to program operas by pre-hegemony tonal composers like those you list at the end of your post (Mascagni et al). And there's equally no reason to neglect the composers who kept the tonal fires burning during the dark ages. Glass may have sparked a resurgence of tonality, but he didn't reinvent it, as Gockney knows perfectly well, or he wouldn't have mentioned Floyd and Moore.

So far so good. But your claim that there was no "serial tyranny" is nonsense. Straus' article has been extensively rebutted (Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music, p. 90-92; Anthony Tommasini, John Halle, George Rochberg (one of the then-serialists himself!), and others.

Straus' problem is that he's using the wrong statistics to measure the wrong manifestation, and in the wrong time period. (Plus that his facts are wrong and many of the composers he claims as tonal, aren't: see Halle.) The serial hegemony did not consist of the absence of tonal music; what it consisted of was, as Tommasini writes, "the disdain that was heaped on composers who continued to write tonal music."

Do I have to cite all the bullying, disdainful rhetoric? Pierre Boulez, 1952: "any musician who has not experienced ... the necessity for the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch." Charles Wuorinen, 1979: "the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers, [but] it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system ..."

Note that neither denies that tonal music is still being written. They just say it's useless, irrelevant, atrophied or vestigial, not serious.

Anonymous said...

That attitude infected serious music criticism. Do I also have to cite examples of the scorn directed at tonalists in those days? Taruskin being taught to mock or just ignore Shostakovich in his theory classes (ca. 1970). Harold Schonberg in 1970 thinking he's rehabilitating Sibelius by grudgingly granting him "an honorable place among the minor composers" - this of Sibelius, the most profound symphonist of his century. And on and on.

There were the composers who were either persuaded, inveigled, or just bullied into turning serialist, from Stravinsky and Copland (who were always curious experimentalists at heart anyway) to legions of younger composers, some of whom, like Rochberg and Del Tredici, later - much later - rebelled against the hegemony. And there were those among the older composers who refused to turn, some of whom continued to plow their lonely furrow, while others were humiliated into silence, like Samuel Barber and - perhaps - your beloved Harold Shapero.

I first became aware of the disconnect at about that time, after reading writers like Schonberg and David Ewen instructing me that serialism and atonality were the music of my time and I'd better learn to like them; but the Schwann catalog was full of recordings by composers like Shostakovich, Hovhaness, and Arnold who were (respectively) derided, brushed aside in passing, and not even mentioned in the books on modern music I was reading.

Note that the serial hegemony didn't take over the record companies - they had to sell records. It was a critical and academic phenomenon, and it became institutionalized in the academy when the rising serialists of the 1950s and 60s became senior professors, that is, in the 1970s and 80s, i.e. the period after Straus' survey intended to detect it ends. And also, getting into the period where the hegemony in criticism, and in popular perception, was beginning to break down. But it doubled down in the academy.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I would argue that much of the disdain came from a comparatively few composers in a comparatively few academic bastions, myself. Friends who studied composition in the 70s say that you didn't find that kind of disdain in Iowa, for example. You found it at Brandeis (where I went) and Yale (where Tommasini went) and mostly, I suspect, at other high-visibility schools on the East Coast, West Coast, Chicago, and a few other places.

I'd have to read a lot more 40s to 70s criticism than I have to be persuaded that there was a critical hegemony about serialism. Dammit, I want to talk with Bob Commanday about this and he is not available.

Something else I really want to do is figure out how much atonal or serialist music appeared on the programs of major musical organizations. I once scanned a season of Boulez's concerts at the NYPO and found very little, for example. If an organization was playing two to five atonal or serial works a season, were audiences really being driven from the concert halls?

Anonymous said...

It's possible that the hegemony didn't reign at small midwestern schools, but they're not the ones that set the zeitgeist. If you're taking the testimony of an Iowa alum that tonal music wasn't disdained there in the 70s, you ought to take the testimony of many, many others that it rampaged unchecked through many, many other schools. It was a real thing, and to some extent still is, and evidence that it wasn't absolutely 100% pervasive doesn't negate its existence.

I think these personal testimonies - there's a lot more discussion of this in Taruskin's book - are clearer evidence than you could get from criticism, where it's hard to tell the cowed from the genuinely enthusiastic.

But if you do look in criticism, you have a slightly off time-frame. It didn't really take hold until after WW2. When Thomson famously scalded Sibelius in 1940, it wasn't for being out of date, and Thomson was still being something of a contrarian gadfly at the time, though the tide was beginning to turn against the overheated Sibelius-worship of the previous two decades.

My memory suggests that the works which brought it to general (as opposed to specialist) critical awareness that modern music didn't have to be this way was Glass's initial operatic trilogy, which dates from 1975 to 1983.

OTOH said...

There are some issues involved in all this that don't seem to be much discussed.

One is that, unlike most classical music experiences, opera (if we want to characterize it as classical music at all, as opposed to theater), is usually all by one composer for the whole event that is being attended. If you hate the music passionately, you can't look forward to it changing to a completely different composer in twenty minutes.

And another is that the amounts of money involved would tend to drive every decision towards safe investments rather than high risk ones, unless there were very strong forces pushing against that kind of thinking. And there aren't very strong forces of that sort here, I don't think.

And then there are the artists themselves and what they are willing to learn and perform. Unless you have committed performers who are also of high artistic caliber, there's not a lot you can do. There aren't really that many Barbara Hannigans available for any given project.

Lisa Hirsch said...

OTOH, yes, exactly, about where the money is for high-risk projects.

There are a fair number of performers committed to learning and presenting new music, and larger organizations might consider drawing from independent new-music ensembles, in some cases. NYC has something like 45 or 50 such groups. The Bay Area has a bunch as well; I assume every large city has these. I mean, West Edge Opera staged a theatrically and musically superb Lulu with a reduced orchestra and local performers! That's commitment.