Sunday, July 21, 2019

Beethoven in America and Orchestral Rep in General

There's a heated Twitter discussion going on in which one person is saying "the repertory sucks, orchestras as organizations suck, too much Beethoven, we need more film & video game music!" and I'm asking a lot of pointed questions about that, because eliminating stale repertory composed from 1760 to 1915 and replacing it with film and video game music would certainly have an effect on the audience, but maybe not the one this individual would like. 

Before I get to the heart of this post, let me reiterate that I think that most orchestras' current repertory and seasons pretty much do suck. There is way too much reliance on the works of a few "central" (perhaps meaning mostly German) composers; way too little new/recent music; way too little music outside the "central" composers; way too little of the excellent composers deemed peripheral or "not great"; way too little music by composers who aren't white men, most of them dead. 

A broader repertory would be good in so many ways; while the occasional conductor has managed to bring the apparently-fringe into the concert hall on a regular basis, those conductors are few and far between, and tend to focus on just a few favorites. For better and for worse, as my readers already know, I'm looking at you, MTT, and your tiny number of American Mavericks.

In the middle of this, another person posted the following:
Can we talk about how the music world needs a well-played Beethoven Cycle? I'm happy to go and really hear the entire catalog by an orchestra who actually understands the power of his Music. American orchestras fall short, and that is why is irrelevant in most cases. 
I replied:
Say more about what you think American orchestras lack, and also which orchestras you mean. 
For myself, Furtwängler back from the dead might get me to a Beethoven [symphony] cycle, but not much more.
And I have gotten answers, which I'm going to summarize as follows:

1. Beethoven is overplayed, but it's not a part of US musical tradition and we can't pull it off compared to European orchestras.

2. They're often underrehearsed and misrepresented.

3. Only NYC and Philly have interesting programming around.

4. In the last couple of years, Beethoven's symphonies have become an important part of the repertoire of American orchestras, because they bring audience.

Let me start with that last item, about "the last couple of years."

American orchestras have been doing festival presentations of particular composers for decades; my first visits to Davies Symphony Hall, in January, 1981, nearly 40 years ago, were to a Mostly Mozart Festival, at which I heard Claude Frank and Lillian Kallir playing concertos. (She was better than he was, I thought at the time.) It's easy enough to check the repertory and programming of US orchestras by looking at the League of American Orchestras' annual repertory reports. These go back to 1970.

Beethoven has also been present since the very beginnings of symphonic performances in the US. The NY Philharmonic, founded in 1842, started to play Beethoven during the orchestra's first season. For perspective, remember that Beethoven had died only 15 years before and was still in living memory; his death and the composition of his last works was closer to 1842 than the premiere of Nixon in China is to 2019.

The NYPO also has a handy public database of every last work they've performed and when they have performed it. Since 1842, they've performed 149 works by Beethoven. I looked up the first five symphonies, and found the following:

Symphony No. 1: 118 performances starting in the 1854-55 season
Symphony No. 2: 155 performances starting in the 1842-43 season
Symphony No. 3: 375 performances starting in the 1842-43 season
Symphony No. 4: 122 performances starting in the 1849-50 season
Symphony No. 5: 468 performances starting in the 1842-43 season

My understanding is that in the 19th c. and well into the early 20th c., some orchestral musicians were American-born, and some were European-born. European trained musicians and conductors would have brought whatever Beethoven performance traditions existed at that time, whatever those happen to have been.

When you listen to a European orchestra playing Beethoven, you don't really know whether that orchestra's Beethoven tradition started in the 19th c., or how far it was from what the tradition was in 1890 or 1850 or 1830. We know that living players and conductors influence each other, and that the historically-informed performance movement has influenced conductors of orchestras that aren't playing on period instruments. Does anyone think Mahler's Beethoven sounded like Beethoven performances from 1815? Even bearing in mind that we have no recordings of Mahler conducting an orchestra?

We do know that there has been a great homogenization of orchestral sound and playing style since the beginning of the recording era, and especially since the end of World War II. I'm not going to go into any detail about this; read Robert Philip's extremely interesting Performing Music in the Age of Recordings for a superb analysis.

My larger point is simply that there's a long and solid tradition of playing Beethoven in the US. The traditions that developed here started not long after Beethoven's lifetime. They're just as valid as whatever the Bayerischer Rundfunk, a great orchestra, is doing. (The Bayerischer Rundfunke is also a much newer orchestra than the NYPO.) Yes, my numbers are NYPO only, but I think I can get some information about other orchestras with emails to SFS and Philly. I mean, Eugene Ormandy was the music directory at Philly for how many years? And he was trained where?

There are some traditions where I am willing to accept that the orchestras (and solo performers) that are local to a particular composer have more of a connection to a particular style. These are mostly in the Eastern European countries and Russia. Among other things, those performing groups were isolated after WWII and retained more of their early sound; Russian orchestras are still famous for the particular brass sonorities, for example. And yeah, I suspect that Hungarian performers might know something about Bartok that Americans don't, given the language and folk music of Hungary.

I did not ask about the "misrepresentation" of Beethoven by US orchestras. "Underrehearsed" - well, any orchestra can be underrehearsed, especially in music they've played a lot ("they know this so well that we don't need as much rehearsal"), but mostly I think that they are not. I can remember maybe one performance by a major orchestra where I winced at problems with the playing - messy downbeats and entries, mostly, in a work I would have thought very familiar to the particular organization. I also remember a program by a good regional orchestra where there were two biggish pieces on the program and it was very obvious which had gotten more rehearsal time. I am curious whether American orchestras, which are full of incredible players, are more likely to be underrehearsed than European orchestras. I'm not at all sure how you'd figure this out, either.

Regarding programming at US orchestras, this is all a matter of the public record. Ask any ten critics, or ask on Music Twitter, about interesting programming and every last one of us will start jumping up and down screaming LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC, with everyone else behind them. I have a public spreadsheet that happens to list the 2019-20 seasons of the San Francisco Symphony and Philly laid out by composer and work. I've even color-coded it by living/dead and male/female. Those seasons seem pretty typical to me, bearing in mind that 19-20 is Michael Tilson Thomas's last season as music director, and so we are getting a lot of MTT's greatest hits, including a couple of works he composed, Mahler, The Flying Dutchman, etc. 


David Bratman said...

If you want a history of US symphony repertoire for earlier years going beyond the NYP, there's a useful reference book called Twenty-seven Major American Symphony Orchestras: A History and Analysis of their Repertoires, Seasons 1842-43 through 1969-70 by Kate Hevner Mueller (Indiana University Studies, 1973), which does only cover those 27 orchestras, but that's a lot, and it's one reason the League of American Orchestras begins with 1970.

I've compiled some decade-by-decade statistics for symphonies (I mean the works, not the orchestras) from this. I think I posted some of this once, and should do so again. Yes, Beethoven has always been around.

I'm confident that serious orchestras, even minor ones, rehearse conscientiously for their regular programs, because for casual pops concerts they sometimes don't, and it really shows.

Tod Brody said...

Interesting thoughts and subjects, Lisa.

From the point of view of someone who both plays in orchestras and is also involved in programming for one of the regional orchestras, I think Beethoven is represented pretty correctly. He's a big-deal guy for all the right reasons (important historically, huge body of high-quality work, delivers both enjoyment/satisfaction and emotional/spiritual impact, truly unlike any other composer), so regular Beethoven on any orchestras's programs suits me just fine. But at the same time, I subscribe to your thoughts about wishing for greater overall diversity of programming (and deeply admiring the LA Phil for being the exemplar of this). For many regional orchestras (like the Marin Symphony, where I work), we need to bring in anything new or unusual very strategically, otherwise our audience will just stay home. Our upcoming season features contemporary music (including three women composers) on each of our four (yes, only four) classical programs , but we need to pick our spots carefully. Thankfully the major organizations, who perform week in and week out, have more flexibility -- it's sad to see most of them, including our vaunted SFS, use that flexibility in a very narrow fashion. I would love to see Salonen bring the kind of programming vitality he created in LA to the San Francisco Symphony -- here's hoping!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Tod! The situation is certainly different with smaller orchestras. I think part of the programming problem with large orchestras is the failure to understand that the orchestral audience isn't homogenous; it's made up of multiple audiences. I'm very firmly in the new & unusual camp; I'd rather hear works by ten composers new to me than all the Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, and Mozart that's on big-orchestra schedules. The LAPO clearly has different tracks for people like me and people who are new to sypmphony orchestras, who will be more excited by Brahms and Mendelssohn than I am.

Canon formation is an interesting subject. I do think that the amount of top-10 music we hear at typical orchestras has the effect of ossifying the repertory while reinforcing 19th century notions of composer greatness. These make it hard to diversify the rep. A ten-year break from the top 10, including Beethoven, would do interesting things to everyone's perspective on the repertory.

Tod Brody said...

"A ten-year break from the top 10..." I love it. I can just imagine the battles over who's in the top ten, and who's out. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky -- and then who? Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky? Mahler, Richard Strauss, Chopin, Rachmaninoff? Berlioz, Sibelius? What about Shostakovich? I'm so over him. Maybe the top twenty, just to be safe. They are all dead white men, to be sure. And a break from "Carmina Burana" -- nobody's saying that Orff's a Top Ten(or Twenty), but please.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I sang "Carmina" once, heard it live once (a friend was in the chorus) and that was enough for me. I do not own a recording.

The top ten or twenty: whatever the LAO repertory report says. My "top 10" was primarily a rhetorical feint. Top 20 or 30 given a rest: yes.

Keith said...

"The LAPO clearly has different tracks for people like me and people who are new to sypmphony orchestras, who will be more excited by Brahms and Mendelssohn than I am."

Not as much as you'd think, I'm afraid. I'm another "give me something new" listener, and the new on the subscription series is always scattered far and wide; I subscribe to an 8-concert series, and always have to exchange three or four tickets to get the new music series that I wish they'd offered in the first place.

If you're a fan of chamber music -- I'm mostly not -- you can do a bit better with the Green Umbrella series, but it takes some work to get to the new orchestral music.

Keith said...

(Oops...meant to include this in that last post.)

"A ten-year break from the top 10, including Beethoven, would do interesting things to everyone's perspective on the repertory."

Or if that seems too drastic, at least diversify the pieces you offer from the Top Ten. How about this as a policy: Don't program any piece you've played in the last five years.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Don't play any piece you've played in the last five years that is more than 35 years old. That would ensure SOME repeat performances of new music.

That's too bad about LA's programming.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I'd go along with that edit. Might even push it farther -- as admirable as it is to commission/perform new music at all, it would be even more admirable if an orchestra would commit to giving new music more than a single performance. If you're going to the bother to perform it in the first place, you should give it a chance to be heard. Every commission should come with a guarantee of three performances within five years. (And if you're a large enough orchestra that you're performing each of your subscription concerts two or three times, that multi-performance weekend only counts as the first performance; you've got to program it again a year or two later.)

Robert Gordon said...

It's odd to read all this dire news about classical music audiences from the perspective of Los Angeles, since none of this seems to apply. From what I can tell, there is an audience here for pretty much anything, no matter how outre, as long as there is some kind of marketing push behind it (witness the huge and mostly young audience for Meredith Monk's Atlas). And the LA Phil does indeed give second performances of many of its commissioned works -- for example, both Andrew Norman's Sustain and John Adams' Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes are getting repeats, the latter both on tour in Korea and Japan and at the Hollywood Bowl.

On the other hand, as Keith pointed out, the LA Phil is not entirely innocent of stupid programs that try to sweeten a novelty with something overly familiar. The biggest frustration for me next season is a sequence of five Dudamel-led programs that pair Ives and Dvorak, as follows:

Ives Symphony #1 with Dvorak #7
Ives #2 with Dvorak #8
Ives #3 with Dvorak #9
Ives #4 with Dvorak #9
Ives string quartet #1 with Dvorak American quartet.

Who is this for? Not me: the composer pairing might make some kind of sense under the heading of Americana, but the Dvorak pieces are all among the most overplayed of the classical repertoire, and under normal circumstances would keep me away. What am I going to do about this? Walk out at 5 intermissions?

So in that spirit, here is a proposed nightmare program for the 2020-2021 season, which I'm afraid is not completely impossible:

Adès: Purgatorio e Paradiso (world premiere)
Tchaikovsky piano concerto #1 with Lang Lang

This of course would be marketed as "Lang Lang plays Tchaikovsky".