Music America Needs Now



Do audiences need to be protected from provocative art?
Picasso: Mère et Enfant, 1902.

In the current social and political climate, what kind of art do audiences need? And what’s more, who should be deciding what they should see or what they can handle? That delicate question has been falling on presenters, conductors, and executive directors across the country. In the weeks following the World Trade Center attacks, many programs were scrapped entirely to make room for material that would offer comfort to grieving audiences. But the question of good taste in programming persists at arts institutions, further complicated as travel concerns continue to result in cancelled tours and soloist appearances. America likely needs its art more now than in decades, but what kind of art does it need?

Even while West Coast music critic Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times that what American audiences needed were productions that spoke to the times such as John Adams‘s Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, the one scheduled performance of the work in the States—by the Boston Symphony Orchestra—was cancelled after the orchestra decided “to err on the side of being sensitive” and pull out of its November performance; they substituted Copland‘s First Symphony instead. Adams was not shy about voicing his disappointment to the media.

So do audiences need the continued comfort that familiar art provides, or do they need it to push them and force them confront and understand the world as it is?

Swed challenges the kind of thinking that would have arts institutions playing parent and protecting the audience from provocative art. “I think that arts groups should lead. It is their responsibility.

“It’s their role to present upsetting art,” he argues. “People need to know what’s going on in the world. Art can upset people and that’s part of its power. The news is pretty upsetting too, and we don’t want to be protected from that.”

Furthermore, he suggests that Boston’s motivations may have been misguided. “Our lack of paying attention got us into the kinds of problems we’re now in. It’s ironic that the reason they cancelled it is because it’s relevant.”

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe sees things from a different angle, though. He explains, “We originally programmed the choruses from John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer because we believe in it as a work of art, and we still hold that conviction.” All the same, after the horrific events of September 11, those involved in producing the performance—Volpe, Robert Spano (who was to guest conduct the work), and John Oliver (director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), in consultation with BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa—saw the need to re-examine their decision to perform the work.

“Our decision [to ultimately cancel the performance] was reinforced by a discussion I had with John Oliver and a few members of our Tanglewood Festival Chorus. They had just sung at the memorial service for the husband of a beloved soprano in the chorus. He was a passenger on Flight 11 that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. They said that it would be very difficult to enter into the extraordinary drama of John’s piece when they were all still reeling from this terrible loss. They explained that it was a purely human reason, and that it wasn’t in the least bit a criticism of the work. They told me that to perform the Klinghoffer choruses at this time would be very painful, and that the issue had nothing to do with art.”

In addition to taking the emotions of the chorus into careful considerations, Volpe says that Spano also advised against the performance. “Bob, who is a big supporter of John’s music, made the point that it simply wouldn’t be fair to John’s work to present a few excerpts out of context so soon after the attacks. He said, ‘Before you pick the scab, you have to let it heal.'”

Ultimately, the BSO made the decision that the Adams work should not go forward, and despite the very public criticism of the decision by the composer and the press, Volpe wouldn’t have done things differently. “We regret that John disagrees with our decision to cancel the Klinghoffer choruses, and that he doesn’t want us to perform another of his works. But we stick by our decision, believing it to be the best one at this time.”

If art, programming, responsibility, and good taste have been evaluated and re-evaluated across the country since the attack, nowhere were the decisions likely more delicate than in New York City. Columbia University‘s Miller Theater, which has a reputation for presenting challenging and thought provoking programming even by New York standards, went ahead with its planned season opener on September 28 of Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s gritty Blood on the Floor. Since then, alterations to the theater’s planned season have been made mainly to allow for the logistical difficulties faced by performers, not to adjust for program content.

Miller Theater didn’t go ahead with the Turnage with blinders on though. Executive Director George Steel says he carefully considered the impact the work might have on the audience and it’s appropriateness considering the mood in New York. “Putting on a concert of the scale of the Turnage program is, at its foundation, a profoundly constructive act,” Steel explains. “Concerts are difficult, complicated, and vulnerable to innumerable logistical vagaries. Further, they demand commitment from all involved—performers, presenter, and audience. I quickly realized that the kind of commitment required to make a show like the Turnage come off was precisely what New York needed: positive, constructive, artistically diverse commitment.”

Steel points out that “of course we considered the sensitivity of the audience even as we considered our own will to mount the show. But in the end, I felt that to sacrifice cultural vitality in favor of balmy familiarity would, as I have said elsewhere, infantilize the audience and diminish the life of the city.”

Steel has since wrestled with other programming issues, but hasn’t allowed them to sway him from the path he originally laid out for Miller Theater this season. “I have, of course, rethought and second-guessed myself many times, but I have consistently come to the conclusion that New York needs the full spectrum of cultural life now more than ever, and that it is my job to provide it,” though he tempers that by adding that “certainly in the weeks immediately following the attacks, I would have considered more strongly postponing extremely provocative work.”

Many performances brought communities together in the days and weeks following the attacks, but Steel says he was sad that so few of the major memorial events here in New York could find American music, or even New Yorkers’ music to respond with. “If in time of crisis, audiences are deprived of music from their own place and time, that sends the signal that we are cultural orphans: I am one of many who do not believe that to be true.”

That’s not to say that there’s no room for the traditional masterworks. “I do not mean to diminish the instinct (as strong in me as in anyone) to lean on everlasting arms: Tallis‘s Lamentations and Bach‘s Well-Tempered Clavier afforded me their sorrow and exultation as well. But I found more practical comfort with those composers who have shared my time and place.”

For his own part, Steel says he found release in works like Julia Wolfe‘s Window of Vulnerability, the lullaby from Bernstein‘s Kaddish Symphony, Kernis‘s Musica Celestis, Copland’s Music for a Great City, and Ives‘s Unanswered Question and (on Alex Ross’s moving suggestion in The New Yorker), his “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose.”

In his role as the director of a performance venue, Steel sees it as his primary responsibility to minimize the effect of the attacks on the scope of the season. Beyond that, he says that if anything, the season should be augmented, not diminished. “I have considered all kinds of musical valentines to New York, but so far, I have not added them. It is a difficult yet critical task to distinguish between music events that are private devotions and those that are public events: one’s own need to eulogize should not impose on another’s right to do the same in her own way. Many of the innumerable memorial events I have dreamt up have seemed on second reflection mawkish and preachy, and I have had to let them go. Imagining them, however, was a much-needed, if private, solace.”

The effects of the attacks did not stop at the borders of New York and Washington, D.C. Albany Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Alan Miller says that in Albany the two concerts following September 11th were altered “really just to reflect our deep emotional feelings after those events” similar to what a number of orchestras did across the country.

“My sense is that obviously in the short term a lot of orchestras felt they wanted to reflect the mood of the time or do things that were in some way particularly comforting for their listeners, but I think that after a period of a couple months have passed things will return absolutely to normal, and I would be quite surprised if orchestras begin to change in an substantive way the nature of what they offer.”

Though many organizations likely took a hard look at their season calendars in the weeks following the attacks for any hints of impropriety, Miller says he’d be surprised if it resulted in a rash of reprogramming. “Not that much music is that controversial. I wish it were more controversial,” Miller acknowledges. “I don’t think that orchestras are suddenly going to be jettisoning pieces and doing other pieces instead. I know we certainly will not.”

Once composers get some distance on their personal emotions, Miller says, “I would hope that a body of very compelling American artwork is created out of the tragedy and out of the way that really has changed all of our lives, but I wouldn’t say that we’re going to in any way backpedal from doing adventurous or daring or controversial things. I think that there will be a body of works that will be very serious and very powerful and very poignant. Many of my composer friends are already feeling compelled to create works that somehow reflect feelings about that event and that’s how it should be.” The ASO already has plans to present a one-year commemorative work next season by Richard Einhorn.

But Miller also points out that he doesn’t expect all fun and lively music to suddenly disappear. “I certainly hope that won’t be the case because in a certain way I think we need that more than ever. But I do think that in the world of more popular culture, though maybe I’m naïve about this, I think that there will be a certain turning away from really frivolous, tasteless, hedonistic stuff, particularly in television and pop music.”

As music director of the ASO, he doesn’t feel it’s his place to protect the audience from content that may upset them. “I think it’s my job to inspire and occasionally provoke an audience in a meaningful, thoughtful way. I think the best art often does that. At the same time I think what I’ve discovered in the last two months is just how crucial a role I’ve found classical music is playing in peoples lives and I think the arts in general, but particularly the more abstract arts.

“I think more than ever audiences are looking to be taken out of the sadness of their lives at the moment. We’re all feeling so much pressure and so much stress. I think that what we’re all looking for is some relief from that.”

He has noticed that recent ASO concerts have been especially emotionally intense. “I think people are looking for comfort in art and I think there are a lot of ways to give comfort. I don’t think that by doing provocative art you don’t give comfort.”

Though their philosophies may differ, those who head arts organizations all over the country are all ultimately trying to present art of benefit to their specific communities under difficult circumstances. It’s hard to say just what the “right” answers are while standing so close. Art plays many roles in times of crisis, helping us both to escape reality and to bring us closer to it. Only time and careful listening, really, will show us what roles it can play for us now.