Like Hanging a Pollock between a Monet and a Renoir

It’s only July, but the pile of 2005-06 season brochures on my apartment floor is already ankle high. Selecting a few at random, I decided to go fantasy concert ticket shopping—fantasy because I was looking at orchestra tickets with an average price tag way outside of my entertainment budget. After 15 minutes, I was completely frustrated by the exercise, but not because of my lack of cash. Here are a few of the programs I was considering:

Elliott CARTER Allegro scorrevole
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 4
BRAHMS Violin Concerto

BRIGHT SHENG New work (NY Premiere)
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”

BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture
CHEN YI Si Ji (“Four Seasons”) (NY Premiere)
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1

BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto
JOHN ADAMS Chamber Symphony
HAYDN Symphony No. 102

I’m curious: While you were reading that list, did you find yourself humming the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…”? Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for setting up a dialogue between new and old work, which can deepen the experience of both, but is this the only compelling way to present new orchestral work?

Wondering if I was just being a new music snob, I asked my NMBx colleagues if I was missing the deeper philosophical connections between the works. Taking on the Beethoven/Adams/Haydn line-up, Frank shot me that “oh, you poor, naïve child” look and quickly reprogrammed the concert: The Adams, then Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1. After intermission, follow up with Verklärte Nacht and Shaker Loops. Floored once again by my editor’s ability to force the 20th-century music card even before his morning coffee, I was tempted to write the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and suggest the change, but what would they do with the already-booked superstar soloist Josh Bell?

Perhaps this sort of programming is a question of economics. Sandwich the new piece between two of the Big B’s and at least the box office won’t be a total washout. When addressing music issues, especially artistic vs. economic ones, I really do try and keep my head out of the sand, but this strategy just seems mean-spirited to all involved, especially the audience. Would you make 50 Cent fans sit through a Garth Brooks set? Would you expect it to double your box office take?

It’s not that I don’t love an evening of Beethoven; far from it. Intellectually I just don’t want my Beethoven experience encroaching on my Bright Sheng listening unless there’s an actual reason for doing so. I don’t like buffet dining either, though.

I go on record here as believing that, in absence of a compelling reason to do otherwise, new music concerts should exist on their own plane. If we’re worried about butts in the seats, I can’t say I see the difference between a dedicated crowd of a few hundred in Zankel Hall vs the few hundred who are left in Avery Fisher after half the house heads for the exit just before the world premiere of the evening. The austere rooms of the modern section of major galleries are a haven for those whose visual inclinations lean towards the present day and we don’t chastise the curators for it. Where is the flaw in offering new music fans a similar sort of sanctuary?

5 thoughts on “Like Hanging a Pollock between a Monet and a Renoir

  1. Kyle Gann

    Pollock out of place
    You’re absolutely right, Molly – I hate the whole phenomenon. But in addition to whatever crass commercial pressures may be at work, the people responsible have also been conditioned by decades of composers like George Rochberg insisting that their music should be able to stand up to that of the 19th-century masters. I’ve made the same argument you make, and have been told point-blank, in huffy tones, “Composers don’t want their music ghettoized. They want it played right next to Brahms and Dvorak to show that it’s just as good.” So it’s not just management, it’s a long history of composers insisting on programming practices that, to many of our generation, look weirdly counterproductive.

    Reply
  2. danielgilliam

    Education & Communication
    When an audience shows up for a “big Bs” concert, or an all Mozart line-up, chances are they are familiar with the music or at least the composers voice. Not so with the latest contemporary work. In my opinion there are two factors that contribute to a work being able to stand on its own: Many repeat performances and/or thorough education of the audience about the composer, their voice, and the specific premiere. This doesn’t excuse sandwiching the piece between two completely opposite works, but it does mean an orchestra may have to put in a few extra hours planning educational events, interviews with the composer, promotion of a CD, or any other device (devices that many pop performers already use).

    Reply
  3. Christopher John Smith

    This past L.A. Philharmonic season included these two wacky programs:

    BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 1
    RAVEL Concerto in G
    JONGEN Symphonie Concertante

    TAN Paper Concerto
    STRAVINSKY Le Chant du Rossignol
    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto

    Interestingly enough, it was the 19th-c. repertoire that lost out, at least for me. The Tchaikovsky seemed to be a sensational performance (Vadim Repin was the soloist), but I could hardly focus on it.
    Also, I can’t recall ever having had the desire to prove I’m “as good as Brahms”.
    As good as Ives, maybe? Or Partch? That would be nice…

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  4. Garth Trinkl

    “Intellectually I just don’t want my Beethoven experience encroaching on my Bright Sheng listening unless there’s an actual reason for doing so.”

    Poor Molly. You sound just like those patrons who flee toward the doors to avoid the world premiere or the contemporary music. They don’t want their all-Mozart, all-Tchaikovsky, or all-Richard Strauss reveries disturbed, either. While I’m all for responsible, intelligent, even thematic programming, I think that we are going to have to learn to embrace — even celebrate — diversity in our concert hall experiences, just as we do in our work places and civic spaces. Even the 18th c. Viennese learned to take delight when Mozart introduced a little Turkish music into his perfected Viennese classical style, rather than trying to ban the “heathen” sounds.

    You go right ahead, Molly, and advocate that American orchestras play separate old music and new music programs. Or you can join Jeff Harrington in envisioning American orchestral concert life consisting only of music written in the past 5 years. I, on the other hand, will try to be realistic, and I will continue to advocate that American orchestras each program six world premieres by American composers each, and every, season. And no, I don’t think that all six works should be on the last concert of the season. They should be carefully placed throughout the season, so that younger people attend more than one concert, and learn to appreciate the Western classical musical heritage as well as new works (of which there will be many more).

    Here is the program that my youth orchestra, under Denis de Couteau, played in Berlin, at the Herbert Von Karajan Youth Orchestra competition, over a generation ago:

    Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn

    Bloch: Schelomo

    alternating with

    Barber: Violin Concerto

    *

    Ives: The Unanswered Question

    Stephen Chambers: Shapes for Orchestra

    Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliette Fantasy-Overture

    I think such diverse classical programming was valid and healthy then. And I think that such diverse classical programming is still valid today in the 21st c. as we try to ween aging audiences from expectations of all Richard Strauss evenings.

    my Renaissance Research blog

    Reply
  5. ebruskin

    I am relieved to hear that others can constructively argue that new music concerts can be a good thing.

    I’ve been going nuts with next season’s Philadelphia Orchestra offerings. I’ve recently joined many of you in the arts biz and money is very tight; and IMHO the PO sounds pretty dim in all but Verizon’s most expensive seats (and even in some of them), so I choose my concerts very carefully. There have usually been between 3 and 6 concerts per year that had a critical mass of interesting new repertoire (and some ultra late romantic stuff as well), so I could afford the best of all worlds.

    But this year, all the big new pieces are paired with … Beethoven symphonies. Theoretically this appears commendable, but for me half or more of each concert is a waste of limited money. (I love Beethoven as much as the next guy, but neither the PO nor Eschenbach are prime Beethoven material. Now James Levine or (to try someone new) Esa-Pekka Salonen, THAT I’d pay big bucks to hear doing Beethoven, but … well, you get the idea.

    But there is a middle ground.

    Example: last season, Eschenbach and the PO played a fabulous Oreo cookie of a concert – Ravel-Sierra-Salonen-Ravel. Breathtaking! It was enough to restore your faith in orchestras’ viability in the 21st century!

    And from the other side of the coin, if you want Schumann-Brahms-”X”, then “X” doesn’t have to speak Chinese (in Schoenberg’s memorable koan)! Rather, let “X” equal someone who makes some points of contact with Brahms and Schumann — Ollie Knussen, pre-tonal Rochberg (the oft-urged Second Symphony, for example, or his 5th), Tsontakis, Wernick … many possibilities!

    It’s like hanging a Rothko next to a Bonnard (a fascinating connection), or a Monet or a Turner — a valid (and artistically respectable) “compare and contrast”, not a chalk-and-cheese.

    Reply

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