April 29, 2008

Hub helmer headlines crix confab

At a Boston Symphony Orchestra press conference with James Levine yesterday, the always voluble music director had some interesting things to say about where new music fits in running an orchestra. Levine has fashioned the BSO into perhaps the leading major-orchestra exponent of a kind of serious, mostly American modernism—the living composers for the 2008-09 season are Carter, Schuller, Kirchner, Boulez, and Previn (the last with the composer conducting). The BSO hasn't completely ignored other contemporary styles, but, as with Golijov and Adams performances in the past couple seasons, they tend to come in with guest conductors. Levine talked about this, saying that he saw his job as not so much personally ensuring a wide variety of music, but making sure that what is performed receives a fully committed performance, and that it would be irresponsible for him to conduct music that he can't establish a strong personal connection with; better to leave composers he doesn't feel close to—which also include Bruckner and Shostakovich—in the hands of conductors who do. (His impression of a lot of neo-tonal new music is that it has too much "pastel droopiness.")

Levine was asked about the pros and cons of his modernist programming: "The most gratifying aspect is that I have lots of warm feedback"—something he loves about the city. But the downside was more fascinating: "The only sad side of it is, some kinds of music take more time for people to want to hear it, and I can only present it at certain intervals." Levine firmly believes that all music will find an audience as long as there are regular chances to hear it—he made comparisons with the BSO's current project, Berlioz's Les Troyens, which wasn't even fully published until the 1960s; he pointed out with wonder that he made his 1972 BSO debut with what was the Tanglewood premiere of Mahler's 6th. But he also clearly believes that the orchestra should be a specialist in all historical genres of music—much of the discussion was about the various ways the programming is designed to keep all kinds of styles and composers, new and old, in front of the players on a regular basis.

Perhaps because Levine has perhaps been pouring his modernist energies into this summer's staggeringly encyclopedic Elliott Carter festival—or, always a consideration, perhaps because of marketing concerns—the upcoming season is pretty light on even 20th-century repertoire, especially in comparison with the BSO's multi-concert Beethoven-Schoenberg series of two years ago. Levine clearly loves the idea of presenting modernism in such an illuminating context: he talked at some length about all the ideas that pairing was able to encompass, and self-deprecatingly lamented a dearth of similar inspirations. It's in keeping with Levine's new-music enthusiasms, his championing of a generation of composers who, in his view, never found the audience they deserved because listeners were more swayed by the idea that those composers were breaching the historical tradition, rather than continuing it. Levine takes a long-range view of modernism—"Music made a great leap forward with the Beethoven late quartets," he said, starting a parallel tradition that Schoenberg carried on—and there's quite a bit to be said for simply getting the music out there: anyone familiar only with Charles Wuorinen's thorny reputation had a chance to be sensually surprised by last season's BSO performances of the Eighth Symphony. But I later found myself wondering if that focus on context was the cause or result of Levine's comparative neglect of younger composers: one could say, after all, that really new music doesn't need a presented context—we're already living in it.

Levine did say something rather striking, subtly turning a half-century of critical energies on its head. "What can you do," he said, "when there are still people out there trying to sell the idea that unless a piece of music has [a tonal orientation], it's not music?" I never thought of anti-atonalists as actively "selling" their position, but it makes sense; it takes just as much energy to deny something's worth as to proclaim it. Maybe that's why I tend to like both tonal and atonal music with equal enthusiasm—because I'm too lazy to take on an aesthetic belief system that requires actual effort to maintain.

14 comments:

Empiricus said...

I must say, however, that Levine has a more hopeful/helpful agenda/prognosis than Ozawa.

This post reminded me of an article I came across by Damon Krukowski a couple of years ago in the Boston Phoenix.

Dear Jimmy

A fine article, indeed.

David said...

Schoenberg made basically the same assertion in 1948 when he said that all that was needed for music predicated on "the emancipation of dissonance" to become more acceptable to the larger public was more frequent exposure. With the advent of recording technology the music of the atonalists can be obtained and listened to with a frequency that Schoenberg probably never dreamed of. Still, sixty years later the music of Carter and his ilk find very few enthusiasts. One can deduce that exposure is not the problem.

It seems that music that is predicated on compositional syntaxes that are so arcane, specialized and complex, syntaxes that make perception and communication difficult, will never find the larger audiences that Schoenberg coveted.

I applaud Maestro Levine's efforts, but music that is primarily about "process" as opposed to communication remains music that will be ignored by the larger public.

DmichaelE

Matthew said...

Empiricus: It always struck me as odd that, for all the new music Ozawa actually did conduct (I mean, the premiere of Messiaen's "Saint François," that's a solid bullet point on anyone's CV), he brought so little of it to the BSO. (He is guest conducting here next November with Messiaen's "Trois Petites Liturgies.")

The article you linked to reminded me of a Chicago Symphony concert I student-rushed my way into many years back, in which Zubin Mehta (!) conducted a jewel-box lovely performance of Webern's op. 24. Pleasant surprises are sometimes the best.

David: If music school taught me anything, it's that four-part chorale harmonization is at least as arcane and specialized as anything Schoenberg came up with. (All music is "process"—even aleatoric music—we're just not likely to notice it as process if we can easily imagine the outlines of a "narrative" within its working out.) It strikes me, in Levine's defense, that, oddly, exposure via live performance seems to be more far-reaching than exposure via recordings—I wouldn't be at all surprised if the number of people who came to hear "Moses und Aron" a couple seasons ago probably far outnumbers the number of recordings of the piece sold in Boston over the past decade. I wonder if the ephemeral nature of live performance encourages more experimental listening, even though tickets cost more than CDs.

David said...

Back in 1992 there was a controversy surrounding the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for music to Wayne Peterson for his composition, "The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark."

The governing body of the Pulitzer committee rejected the choice of the Pulitzer music panel,
Ralph Shapey (for his composition "Concerto Fantastique") and instead awarded Mr. Peterson the prize.

As I recall, the reason given for the override was that the Pulitzer's governing body felt Mr. Peterson's music was more “accessible” than Mr. Shapey's.

Of course, the music panel rankled over the interference of individuals lacking compositional expertise in making this kind of subjective assessment, and such a parochial one at that. Outrage was expressed by the music press in nearly every quarter, especially in the NY Times.

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to this scenario, Max Raimi, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, (which played the premiere of Shapey's work), remarked that in his tenure with the CSO, he had never witnessed such a negative reaction to a new work. According to Mr. Raimi, members of the audience walked out and those who stayed expressed little enthusiasm for Mr. Shapey's music. In fact, according to Mr. Raimi, they seemed horrified.

Mr. Raimi then put forth what I believe to be a most perspicacious query regarding the Pulitzer flap: “If a playwright, novelist or film maker fails so utterly to reach an audience, we call it failure; why in music do we call it success?”

Why, indeed?

Now this was a professional musician making this query, not some cultural Philistine (not that musicians can't be such.) Mr. Raimi went on to ask: “How moribund must our art become before arbiters of achievement require composers to write for the vast public rather than just one another?”

As far as I know, neither Mr. Shapey's nor Mr. Peterson's aforementioned works are commercially available on CD. Over the years I've tried to find them, but to no avail.

My guess is that those in Boston who attended the performance of "Moses und Aron" probably owned a recording of the work and were somewhat familiar with the music.

But the fact remains (arcane processes aside), tonal music is far more successful in its ability to inspire and move people emotionally. Hence, it's easier to "sell" folks on it.

DmichaelE

David said...

Schoenberg asserted:

“Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composes in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas - one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration.”


I suggest that the "fantasy" of the public needs to be in the equation as well.

DMichaelE

Matthew said...

Nah, I still don't buy it. Hardcore modernism has always communicated to me just fine, and I can't think of anything in my bland middle-class upbringing that would make me any more predisposed to like it than anyone else, except for the fact that I first heard it before I knew what it was—which has always fostered the suspicion that most of "the public's" alleged antipathy is based more on reputation than experience. (No, it's never going to be in heavy rotation on VH1—neither is Schubert, for that matter.)

I was actually at the premiere of Shapey's piece, which I recall receiving a rather perfunctory performance. (Shapey himself conducted, as a short-notice substitute—he looked like an unusually forceful leprechaun.) A cool piece, though—I remember he had two banks of roto-toms placed on each side of the orchestra, launching fusillades at each other. I would love to hear it again, in a performance that really did justice to its visceral crunchiness.

David said...

Matthew said:

"...which has always fostered the suspicion that most of "the public's" alleged antipathy is based more on reputation than experience."

Alleged antipathy?

DmichaelE

Matthew said...

Well, I myself am part of the public, after all.... :)

Henry Holland said...

As am I.

David, don't pretend that you speak for the "public". You speak for yourself and project those thoughts on to others.

Fine, Carter is never going to be as popular as Mozart. SO WHAT?!?! God, I'm so sick of this strawman that's constantly dragged in to these arguments. It's also an American thing, in Europe there's a healthy audience for challenging music that's helped by state funding that keeps ticket prices low so people can experiment.

Alleged antipathy?

Yes, "alleged". Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Minotaur, sold out all of it's run after the premiere at the Royal Opera House because the opening night reviews were almost all raves and it's a far from Mozart as is possible. I sat in a packed ROH in 1992 for his Gawain. I went to 3 performances of Moses und Aron at the City Opera in 1990 and they were all very-well attended and got a great response. Reimann's Lear was revived in San Francisco after its initial run (there's a killer tape of it around with Thomas Stewart as Lear), and it was so successful at its Munich premiere run that it was added to the next season's schedule on short notice.

Etc. etc. I literally could provide 7 pages of counter-examples to your banal statements.

I know it's hard to wrap your head around this but people *do* attend all-Carter programs and *gasp* it's not because James Levine has a gun pointed at their temples as he growls "You WILL pay money to attend the concert with the Symphonia on it or I pull the trigger!".

Mr. Raimi went on to ask: “How moribund must our art become before arbiters of achievement require composers to write for the vast public rather than just one another?”

"Require"? Hello Stalin! Composers do write for the "vast public", it's called film music.

Hardcore modernism has always communicated to me just fine, and I can't think of anything in my bland middle-class upbringing that would make me any more predisposed to like it than anyone else

Exactly! Mozart drives me up the wall, I remember having to sit through one of his pieces to get to something I cared about and thinking "If I have to hear one more fucking I6-ii7-V7-I cadence, I'm going to scream". Sure enough, 8 bars later, another one came up and I screamed. Quietly, but I screamed.

Memo to David:

Not everyone thinks like you.

Regards,
Henry Holland

Henry Holland said...

Empiricus, thanks for the link. I loved this bit:

As you no doubt know, Boston is in many ways a place out of step with the rest of the country: our choice for president wins almost as rarely as our baseball team.

I had to check the publication date: yep, 2001! Damn you Sox, damn you to hell for 1986 and 2004.

/Angels fan

David said...

Henry,

Having conducted premiere performances of works by a number of contemporary composers of wildly varying styles (including two by Tan Dun), I know full well that the compositional landscape is no longer dominated by a single "triumphant" style. The diversity that now exists in art music is a healthy development. However, that diversity was not celebrated 30-40 years ago in the same manner it is today.

You can cite your 7 pages of "counter-examples" but it's undeniable that the determinist attitudes about composition that were born out of the spirit of Darmstadt did a great deal to further the marginalization of serious art music---to our collective loss.

DmichaelE

Henry Holland said...

You can cite your 7 pages of "counter-examples" but it's undeniable that the determinist attitudes about composition that were born out of the spirit of Darmstadt did a great deal to further the marginalization of serious art music---to our collective loss.

The move to abstraction, of people literally throwing paint at a canvas, did a great deal to marginalize the popularity of painting.

The move from being dance music to a form for people to do 10 minute sax solos, and especially, the move to free jazz did a great deal to marginalize the popularity of jazz.

The move to being concerned with form and language at the expense of ideas did a great deal to marginalize the popularity of poetry.

The move from women in tutus doing story ballets like Swan Lake to people in sweat pants running around the stage like gymnasts while a Bach prelude is played over the PA system did a great deal to marginalize the popularity of ballet.

Etc. [Note: the above may contain cliches]

Of course, you moved the rhetorical goalposts. Sure, the Darmstadt aesthetic did what you claim, but so what? That's not what I was arguing, which was your absurd, unfounded claim that there's not an audience for "hardcore modernism", as Matthew called it.

I couldn't possibly care less that "serious art music", as you put it, isn't on the cover of Newsweek anymore or is "central to public discourse on the arts" and all the other cultural studies stuff that has some people in the classical blogosphere clutching their pearls before hitting the fainting couch about, but which bores me to tears.

"collective loss"? What would that be? A reduction in job opportunities for you and other performers? Again, it's utterly trivial to me whether, say, someone like Leonard Bernstein is on prime-time TV pontificating about Beethoven or Birgit Nilsson is singing arias on a prime-time variety shows (which, of course, don't exist any more) or any of those mass culture barometers that some people are so obsessed with.

I simply see a scene that has greater depth and variety than your supposed pre-WWII paradise before those nasty Darmstadtians ruined the party for everyone. Matthew's reviews here on STD --um, better to write that out: Soho The Dog-- bear this out. There's niche markets for all-Schoenberg concerts, Handel operas, Renaissance choral music and every other thing under the sun that simply didn't exist 40 or more years ago; of course, the standard

Weber overture
Mozart concerto
[intermission]
Beethoven symphony

concert formula still packs concert halls worldwide. I'll gladly trade mass market profile for the chance to hear Schreker played any day.

Empiricus said...

Snap. (That's the best I could do)

Couldn't agree more. I'd love me some all-Harbison concerts (even though I don't particularly like all of Harbison's music) over the (insert Overture here) plus (insert concerto here) and (insert romantic anything [40+ minute doodles] here) humdrum.

Capitalism can be a bummer, sometimes.

Good work H. H.!

Henry Holland said...

Thanks, E.! :-)

I read the "Dear Jimmy" link again and I fully agree with the point about not trying to sneak modernist pieces in to Haydn > Beethoven bookends.