A Tale of Two or Three Violin Concertos in Cleveland
We frequently opine here about getting more people interested in “our music.” I had three experiences during my first-ever visit to Cleveland this past weekend which offer some interesting variations on this theme. For some weird reason, each involves a violin concerto, but that’s purely coincidental.
One of the main reasons I went to Cleveland was to hear Margaret Brouwer’s Violin Concerto which was performed on a free outreach concert given in five different venues over the course of five consecutive days. The piece was played by violinist Michi Wiancko and CityMusic Cleveland under music director James Gaffigan. After all the theorizing about the impact that venues have on audience perceptions about performances, I thought I’d test it out on myself and hear the concerto in two very different acoustical spaces. On Saturday, I heard the concert in the landmark century-old Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, a space which looked and felt as imposing as a cathedral and sounded as reverberant. Sunday, I heard the program again at Rocky River Presbyterian Church, a structure built in the 1960s that is as acoustically dry as many recently built concert halls. Indeed, various percussion interjections sounded more startling in Stanislaus but that could have equally been because I had never heard the piece before. I soon stopped trying to make comparisons and got more interested in how successful this new piece was for audiences comprised of people who don’t normally attend orchestra concerts. I was told that someone attending the Stanislaus performance said, “I felt like this music was written for me,” and indeed it was.
Of course, I couldn’t visit Cleveland without attending a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall which I had been told is one of the world’s great concert halls. And now I, too, can attest to the hall’s fabulous acoustics, as well as its otherworldly Art Deco interiors. Unfortunately there was no new or American repertoire compelling me to attend; no music “written for me.” The program was just Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, both of which I’ve heard innumerable times, even though one of Gil Shaham’s cadenzas—no originals from Beethoven survive—almost sounded like Paul Dresher to my new music-starved ears. No matter, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, the hall was packed and the performances received standing ovations, and I was glad I was there. Severance and its resident orchestra put Cleveland firmly on the world map, which makes it all the more surprising that I was unable to find a postcard of that great hall at the Cleveland Airport. The only Cleveland landmark I was able to find on a postcard was their eight-year-old football stadium!
Which brings me to the final violin concerto of this trip. As airplane reading, I brought with me a fascinating new experimental novel by Joshua Cohen called Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto which is ostensibly a never-ending monologue about the work of a fictional contemporary composer spoken from the stage of Carnegie Hall. It’s great to read a book that gets our music-making process down so well, and I imagine that anyone who reads this book will want to hear more new music. Yet in his introduction, Cohen writes that “modern or serious aleatory music […] is as deaf to the world as the world is to it.” That comment, from someone in the seeming similarly ghettoized world of experimental fiction, raised a flag for me. Sometimes it does feel like the world is deaf to a lot of music, but is it fair to say that the folks who are creating it are deaf to the world?