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Sarah Palin’s Favorite Soloist

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 sundæ. 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 Shō, 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 Я 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
Ellington: Solitude
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 industrý (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:


  • How to make this concert worse?

    Just add “Wellington’s Victory.” Gaaaaaackkkk…

    Or perhaps Ms. Palin narrating “Lincoln Portrait?” In her homey phoney “I’m just like y’all” bullsh*t voice?

    Ducking and running, humming “O Canada”…

  • Christ in a sidecar! Is that really Herself playing the flute? That has to be one of the worst tonal qualities I’ve heard since Junior High beginner’s band. Chalk up another gaaaaaackkkkk!

    Would that The Almighty had sent a lightning bolt down from the sky then and there!

    I love your blog, Nico.

  • you got so much going in this blog. I LOVE IT. palin fluting it of all things. i think i need to take a long nap.

  • Nice piece. Realistically, of course, if you’re going to have a concert with James Galway in it, you’re going to end up with a flute concerto that Galway wants to play, and I have a feeling that if he wanted to do Rouse he would have by now. The question then is, given that Galway wants to do the Ibert concerto, how do you program a concert so as to set that piece off to its best advantage? (I don’t think the NY Phil did so in this case.)

  • Still have to hand it to David Robertson for some of the best programming around:

    “Beat Movement”: TURNAGE A Prayer Out of Stillness, MACKEY Violin Concerto, STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring.

    As with Palin…eh. (Shivers…more shivers…)

    On the other hand, Galway has definitely played modern stuff. Even the Corigliano is a better choice. I could easily come up with something good around that.

  • maybe instead of Fligh’ of the Bumblebee, Galway should have just performed a Little John Cage 4”33′ backstage…maybe as a duet with Sarah Palin.


  • I loves me some weird programs. The Minnesota Orchestra came into the Kennedy Center years and years ago with (if I remember correctly):

    ADAMS Short Ride in a Fast Machine
    VIVALDI Bassoon Concerto
    MAHLER Symphony No. 5

    Back when I was working as a critic in Norfolk, the then-music director of the Virginia Symphony uncorked this:

    COPLAND El salon Mexico
    BERNSTEIN Serenade
    BERNSTEIN Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
    COPLAND Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo

    which is fascinating in that there’s no correct order possible there. A conductor friend supplies one he conducted years ago (but didn’t program):

    STRAUSS Also sprach Zarathustra
    ROUSSEL Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2
    RAVEL Bolero

    But my favorite — in part because of the venue, a Holiday Inn ballroom in Chesapeake, Va. — is this, concocted by a community chorus conductor and performed with a hired-out Virginia Symphony:

    STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms
    RODGERS Sound of Music Suite
    WILHOUSKY Battle Hymn of the Republic

  • @Mark Mobley: That Holiday Inn ballroom concert sounds like the truly weirdest musical experience of all time, especially since the program is listed backwards. They should be starting with “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” bouncing on to “The Sound of Music” and THEN it’s time for the “Symphony of Psalms.”

    I did my second professional music interview today, this time with the pianist Emanuel Ax after a rehearsal of Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony for piano and orchestra in San Francisco. It sounded absolutely sensational and he’s going to be performing it at the NY Phil this winter, so be sure to check it out. My last question to him was, “Why is your hometown orchestra in New York so conservative in its programming?” and he defended their honor prodigiously. I’m going to have a look at this year’s schedule to see if I agree with him or not.

    In any case, when I asked the p.r. lady at the symphony who had actually programmed the concert, she paused and said, “Good question. I’m not sure.” The program is a bizarre quartet conducted by Jeffrey Oundjian from Toronto of Mozart’s “Magic Flute Overture,” the Szymanowski, R. Strauss’ early Burleske for Piano & Orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini.” It seems that putting together an actual program involves quite a few chefs, from the conductor, the soloist, and the artistic bureaucrat at the symphony who checks to make sure a piece isn’t being played repeatedly within the course of a few seasons. Sometimes the combo works, other times it’s a silly divertissement like the NY Phil opening.

    But big cultural institutional openings are just that, a chance for wealthy donors to have fancy dinners and get drunk together. You don’t want to scare them with too much actual music.

  • That´s the most fun discussion of my job I´ve ever read. Seriously, though, there are so many factors that go into this kind of decision-making. What does the conductor/soloist want; what didn´t we do last season; is our repertoire well-balanced overall or do we need a Beethoven symphony (or Mozart concerto, or whatever) to prevent the subscribers from going berserk, etc. etc.

    Our opening concert was a ridiculous mix of the overplayed and the never heard:

    TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet
    TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin concerto
    D´INDY (!?!?): Symphony no. 2

    but this only came about because we were recording it the following week for a major label and needed to run it in concert. Not ideal, but it actually worked pretty well. And I made up for the sheer randomness of it last week with the crazy gamelan program, which I´ll post just for fun:

    POULENC: Concerto for two pianos
    MCPHEE: Tabuh-tabuhan
    MUHLY: Wish You Were Here
    DEBUSSY: La mer

    Also, I may steal your Adams/Elgar/Beethoven idea. It may be predictable, but it´s exactly the kind of program we all want to hear no matter what.

  • you LOVE sports you cant help yourself.

  • I played in the orchestra in college and frequently had bizarre programs.

    von Weber – Der Freischutz
    Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor
    Barber – Adagio for Strings
    Tchakovsky – Romeo and Juliet

    Rossini – Overture to William Tell
    Beethoven – Symphony No. 1
    Delius – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
    Hanson – Symphony No 2

  • This IS a lovely discussion.
    I’ll add one horrible programming concept to the mix, along with a comment:
    1. Here’s the horrible programming concept: the community orchestra that – due to budget cutbacks – combined their Hallowe’en and Christmas concert programs…I think Night on Bald Mountain directly preceded Leroy Anderson’s immortal Sleigh Ride. Add other juxtapositions as you will.
    2. You comment on the blend of fonts on the NY Phil’s program listing: well, umm. Not to dump on you, but the font you’ve chosen for your blog is practically illegible! Have you ever considered Gill Sans Serif, the most elegant font ever?

  • OK. I like “Make this Concert Worse better.” How about D’Indy “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” instead of Berlioz? Or Franck Symphony in D minor instead of Tchaik?

    Still, in my mind, best concert ever: D. Robertson @ Juilliard

    Ligeti – Atmospheres
    Debussy – Jeux
    Messaien – Turangalila