from Tuesday, October7th of the year2008.
This is a first for me: a co-blogging exercise with the lovely and talented Amanda Ameer over at Life’s a Pitch. Read her post here. Also, check in with her blog; it’s a very interesting set of musings about the role of PR in classical music.
My roommate is currently in the throes of Baseball Fever “” all her social plans are jettisoned in favor of finding a New York City bar sympathetic to her belovèd Red Sox. She, like me, grew up in the Northeast, and they are her Home Team. It’s a nice feeling to root for your Home Team, all sorts of bubbly good-feelings come out of such an emotion. Having a home team enhances civic pride and sells a lot of hot dogs. So why, beloveds, why, is the New York Philharmonic so not my home team? I’ve been blogging about them for a while, because it is a really curious phenomenon to me. I’m kind of obsessed with it. Let us for a minute focus our attention on the programming of their opening night gala. Behold:
“This concert is now past” is not, as it happens, an editorial comment by a sassy webmistress, but is instead merely an indication of the fact that this concert happened In the Past, that being, September, 2008. Just a few short weeks ago! Also let’s not discuss how there are too many fonts. I’ve been thinking a lot about this concert. Roman Carnival Overture. Ibert Flute Concerto. Tchaik 4. Tchaik 4, Ibert Flute Concerto. Roman Carnival Overture. Now, none of these are “bad” pieces of music, by any means. In fact, I have a soft spot for the pizzicato movement of Tchaik 4. I love that English Horn in Roman Carnival! The Ibert is actually a fun piece of music! It’s more that the combination of these things is straight up stupid; it’s like eating three courses composed entirely of the Make Your Own Sundae Bar at the Sizzlerâ„¢ or something. I cannot imagine a more horrifying way to spend an hour and forty-five minutes, even though the quality of the performances would undoubtedly be extremely high. In collaboration with Amanda Ameer, at Life’s a Pitch dot blogspot dot org bar and grille, I want to explore this concert as a sort starting point for a longer conversation about orchestral programming.
I am going to put an aside here for people new to the world of Orchestra Programming. Skip this paragraph if you know this already, because I’m going to oversimplify and generalize. The basic format of an orchestral classical music concert is that you have a short opening piece ““ somewhere between, say, five and twelve minutes, maybe an overture to a Mozart opera or maybe something contemporary. Then, you either have a more substantial orchestra piece, or a concerto, which is to say, a work for soloist and orchestra. This is usually between twenty and thirty minutes long. Then, you have an intermission. After the intermission comes a larger work ““ a 19th century symphony, for instance, or an entire ballet score. That lasts around forty minutes to an hour, so the whole thing clocks in around two hours. There are many exceptions to this, (for instance, some Mahler symphonies are so long they need a whole evening just to themselves) but, to be reductive, having a soloist can make people want to come see the show ““ for instance, if Joshua Bell comes, people want to hear him play, so they come for the concerto and stay, as the saying goes, for the Mahler Symphony. One of the dangers of new music, which is what I write, is that you get stuck on the first half of the first half, which is to say, “the concert opener.” It can feel tokeny, but for a lot of audiences, an eight minute contemporary piece is very exciting. Moving along…
The other night, Nadia and I played a game, which was “Fix This Concert.” Actually, first we played a game called “Make This Concert Worse,” which was actually too hard for us as we were into our cups and we were doing it in a noisy bar. The only thing we could think would be to swap out Roman Carnival for Boléro (and again, nobody’s shitting on Boléro here. Or, for that matter, make your own sundÃ¦. But the point is the programming). The other idea we had would be to replace the Ibert with a “lesser ridiculous concerto,” but we couldn’t actually think of any. Everything we named ““ no matter how obscure ““ was more interesting. Szymanowski Violin Concerto? Kind of genius! Anyway, “Fix This Concert” was fun. Here’s one option:
DRUCKMAN Summer Lightning
IBERT Flute Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4
Now, with this program, we’ve solved a bunch of issues. Jacob Druckman (1928-1996) was a New Yorker. His son is in the orchestra, a percussionist. His music is fantastic, brilliant, and exciting. Summer Lightning is eight minutes long. Done. New Yorker, Native Son, American, second half of the 20th century. Victory. Also, also! The New York Philharmonic has recorded Summer Lightning, WITH Maa’azel! You can buy it on iTunes! They could have sold it at the Merch Table! It’s a good-ass recording, to boot. So I don’t get it.
Now, let’s get raw here:
DRUCKMAN Summer Lightning
ROUSE Flute Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4
Now we’re talking! Two American composers, one living, one dead. The Rouse concerto is amazing because it starts out sounding like Sarah Palin could have played it at her Talent ShÅ, and then moves through this crazy chorale about the James Bulger abduction and murder. The composer writes about it here, eloquently. Who knows, maybe he’d be free and could turn up at the Gala! Take a little bow! I’m assuming that for whatever reason, people Ð¯ freaked out about not having a major canonical work on the program, so, I understand why you have to have Tchaik 4 on the second half. But let’s pretend for a minute that we choose works entirely from the canon, and see what we can do:
ADAMS Short Ride in a Fast Machine
ELGAR Cello Concerto
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7
I’d go to that. You’ve got two works from the 20th century, one of which is mad famous (the Elgar) and the other one of which is genius and is over before you know it.
Or how about:
BERLIOZ Roman Carnival Overture
ADAMS Violin Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4
Basically the point that I’m making here is that it’s not that hard to program a concert that isn’t insane. The other thing is that this is a Gala concert, and as such, it wants to demonstrate not only the virtuosity of the players (which, in the case of the Philharmonic, is uncontested; it’s one of the best orchestras in the world) but also the virtuosity of them as an organization, which should include even the merest shadow of their artistic commitments. Let’s check in with the L.A. Philharmonic, shall we, to see how they started off the year:
Stravinsky: Selections from The Firebird
Adams: “This Is Prophetic” from Nixon in China
Sondheim: There Won’t Be Trumpets
Styne/Cahn: 10,432 Sheep
Stravinsky: “No Word from Tom” from The Rake’s Progress
Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre
Besides the fact that I just completely wet myself with rapture at this concert (are you CRAZY?), it is a great way to show off what the orchestra can do well. It’s a mix of 20th century masterpieces (The Firebird, from 1911), and Mysteries of the Macabre, (from 1991, I think). The Ligeti connects to the Adams because both are excerpts from larger operas, meaning that people who liked it are more likely to run out and buy the complete works. The Firebird is the best-orchestrated thing since ever, so the orchestra is going to shine, and am I mistaken in recalling that the Ligeti has a wonderful solo trumpet line? Notice also how they have West-Coast Composer Representation? John Adams (and, to a certain extent, Stravinsky) in the house? How are you going to send mail to my house, talking about “buy tickets to Ibert.” I would literally sooner get on a plane, go to L.A., go to that concert, and fly home on the Redd Eye. Now, the San Francisco Symphony has a slightly less exciting concert that I would go to only if I were in town, (DelibesCortège de Bacchus from Sylvia Suite, Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story & Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Bronfman) “” but even that, it’s like, why are we letting a West Coast Orchestra start their season with Bernstein? That shit is ours! Although come to think of it the Delibes is pretty random. It’s kind of like, Ballet Porn.
The New York Philharmonic is just shooting itself in the foot with this; you can’t be a major orchestra and program like a youth orchestra. You have to include living (or at least 2nd half of the 20th century) composers! It’s just not going to work out for your asses, it doesn’t matter who’s telling you otherwise; whoever it is is wrong. I’m going to leave it to Amander to expound on why this is a bad idea, not just for her industrÃ½ (PR) but for everybody concerned. Suffice it to say, Tony T was not amused:
The performance of Ibert’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra before intermission was curiously ineffective. This 20-minute work from the early 1930s is a pleasant piece, with a richly chromatic harmonic language, typically French effervescence and jolts of gnashing dissonance to tweak the breezy music with humor. For all the surface charm of the concerto, its solo part is a nonstop virtuosic workout. Alas, Mr. Galway sounded uninvolved. At the end he received a warm ovation, though not quite enthusiastic enough, it seemed, to warrant an encore. Mr. Galway gave the audience one anyway: an arrangement of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” tossed off indifferently.
See, so the issue isn’t that this particular performance was boring; it’s the entire system. Can you even imagine? Flight of the fucking Bumblebee? James Galway, girl, calm it down. It’s like these arguments saying that, you know, the current Å“conomical situation is messed up, and we shouldn’t point fingers, but there have been eight years of the Bush Administration’s deregulations at the heart of why, you know, Capitalism just exploded. (Also did everybody see this?)
Finally, I’m going to end with something slightly more upplyftyng: