Whose Philharmonic Is It?

Leave it to this orchestra. Whatever it does, the New York Philharmonic seems to garner attention. Of course it’s hardly surprising, considering that the local press amounts to the de facto national arts reporting machine, and nearly all of the classical music business—artist management, public relations, publishing, licensing—is a mere bike ride away from ol’ Avery Fisher Hall. It’s a large, busy organization with a multifaceted mission; a big fish in a big town, yes, but it’s also just steps away from the performing arts organization with the largest operating budget in the country and a quick zip to what must be just about the busiest presenter of concert music in the world. As the oldest orchestra in the U.S. (by a long distance: the only one closer to age 200 than 100) it might enjoy a certain grandfather status among its peers, but as the institution of the professional orchestra is always in a kind of slow flux, one can only attempt to retro-flux and imagine a pre-civil war Philharmonic throwing gala concerts, giving the U.S. premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth in Battery Park. Brahms’s symphonies were yet still in the future.

Like many top American ensembles, the Philharmonic has fluctuated between worship of the glorious past (pretty damn good, no?) and the altogether messier business of interacting with these living guys (I’ll give it to them, we can be unpleasant!); sometimes the pendulum swings by the decade and sometimes by the week. We see and read about it all. One year the New York Philharmonic is publicly lauded for following the hearts and minds of its musician-members for choosing an elder-statesman to lead its ranks and provide stability, and the next year the old guy is doing entirely too much Tchaikovsky! The throngs are bored, old man. This is New York, after all (and we’ve already forgotten that the old man and his band can do a Daphnis for the ages, and that Daphnis pays the bills). It might be the Philharmonic, but somehow New York doesn’t always want to claim it: it’s never our Philharmonic. I’ve been to Cleveland and Boston, and it’s not tough to see the hometown swagger those groups rightly maintain. New Yorkers cherish their institutions as much as anyone, but it seems, in the end, a tough love: Watch them closely and hold their feet to the fire whenever necessary.

So, by the time Alan Gilbert, the next Bernstein all wrapped in the violin section’s swaddling clothes, came in from Harvard and Sweden, the somber, serious hero to save the swerving rusted jalopy from the free fall and fiery inferno of utter artistic stagnation with a Single. Opening. Concert., he certainly had our attention. The myth, ridiculous as it was, is dutifully being slowly chipped away at, one week at a time, hopefully to be replaced with something more balanced and complex, more of a complete picture. More worthy of dinner conversation.

When mythical Maestro Gilbert the Re(tro)former announced his plans to put new music on the the orchestra’s agenda and on the payroll in a way not seen since the eras of Mr. Mehta and Mr. Boulez, many commentators reacted positively, connecting his good track record and genuine interests to a thread running intermittently through the Philharmonic’s own history. But much to my horror was a slowly emerging din of a totally different sort: from the loosely gathered new music community, residing in—where else?—but New York. Composers and performers young and old, a bit on blogs and a bit in person, were slowly starting to decide what they thought, and for a while (months before the first CONTACT! concert) the answer seemed clear: thanks, but no thanks.

You see, here in New York, we’re full up. No need, not for us. Not one more composer, no new ensemble, and certainly not from them. My friend Judd Greenstein actually makes the fair point quite succinctly. “There is a major dearth of new orchestra music in this city. So why go and start a New Music Ensemble when we’re already packed to the gills with nimbler acts and groups with dedicated followings?” Then quickly comes the old “copycat” attack—pointing to but one program, while simultaneously noting that CONTACT!‘s offerings aren’t already rivaling those of the Green Umbrella in Los Angeles, a series with a 25-year history, and the obvious shining star for presenting new music to an orchestral audience in this country. I point also toward the Chicago Symphony’s younger MusicNOW Series as a flexible model that has seen its way through a big transition in that organization. And in Europe? The mighty Berliner Philharmoniker counts no less than 25 dedicated chamber groups, some with their own management and touring schedule, and when gathered onstage, somehow are able to find their seats and form an orchestra. Is this the beginning of the end for the the New York Philharmonic? Cutting things down, Mahler Eight fading from ours ears and memories… I think rather the opposite. A dedicated new music series looks to me more like the beginning of a beginning, so I’m content wait and see what unfolds on the larger Avery Fisher stage. But you’ll certainly see me at Le Grand Macabre next month and at Kraft next season.

But the kinds of comments from New Yorkers that worry me the most, and those that, from my vantage point, bear the least sense of context in terms of what happens in the city or the world, are those that attempt to place CONTACT! and its programming in an unsavory and outdated light: the two-party system of Uptown-istan and the Downtown-icrats. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. No one ever decided to make their first experiments in sound, whether on a piano or a harmonica, with that absurd, creation-killing dialectic in mind. Those terms, while novel in describing a real situation at the time, really came to be more about power (funding, posts, tastemaking, access to the press) than they ever expressed about art. Forty years later, what was accomplished? Lines in the sand, awkward cocktail parties, and a lot of pain for the embittered and bedraggled artists, some of whom sadly became a cause célèbre with no cause left to remember. I’m disturbed by any such notion these days. I trek to Galapagos for a New Amsterdam Records release party for Nadia Sirota’s new album, five years in the making, enjoy myself, and celebrate their good will toward new music just as readily as I walk to Roulette to hear the Talea Ensemble pay tribute to the prematurely deceased Italian Fausto Romitelli. Or to hear Wet Ink passionately bring Austrian Beat Furrer’s slow/fast undulations and cycles forth, Sequitur playing Sebastian Currier’s brilliant chamber music, ICE playing Kaija Saariaho’s. Judd is right! There’s more than enough, but who is to stop us from attending, from cheering, from celebrating the glut? The thick, creamy soups always taste best.

As I type quietly in rehearsal, watching Alan Gilbert draw Matthias’s heavenly harmonies forth from some of the best players anywhere, I revel, truly revel, in the sound. CONTACT! is joining a crowded subway car, and I’m going to celebrate the company.

2 thoughts on “Whose Philharmonic Is It?

  1. robert berger

    With all due respect,I don’t think this is at all fair to the New York Philharmonic.
    In fact, I doubt if any orchestra anywhere in our time has offered more varied and interesting programming, even before the highly touted arrival of Alan Gilbert as music director.
    And ironically, the orchestra within the past 20 years or so, whether under music directors or guest conductors, has actually played a lot more new music than many other orchestras, whether in the US,Europe or elsewhere, and by a wide variety of contemporary composers
    of highly diverse compositional styles.
    I welcome Gilbert’s interesting programming, but reports of how revolutionary it is, and how previously stodgy the orchestra had been have been greatly exaggerated.
    In the course of any given season, the NY Phil. will play anything from Haydn,Mozart,Beethoven and Schubert to Adams, Rouse,Corigliano,Ades, and other leading contemporary composers, as well as reviving many interesting rarities from the past.
    Yes, it plays the familiar masterpieces of Beethoven,Brahms,Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, but so do orchestras everywhere.
    Oh well, orchestras and their music directors are damned if they do,and damned if they don’t. No matter what they program, some one will complain bitterly. It’s a no win sitution.

    Reply
  2. seanshep

    Mr. Berger,

    Your point is (belatedly – my apologies) well-heeded. I enjoyed being present for the premieres of many of the important works the Philharmonic commissioned while under the baton of Maestro Maazel, including those by Stephen Hartke, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Augusta Read Thomas, and my own teacher, Steven Stucky (and there are others I sadly missed!). Also, performances on subscription concerts of important works by composers with local ties, including Jacob Druckman (a former Philharmonic composer-in-rez), Columbia University Professor Tristan Murail, and the mighty Sinfonia of Berio (actually commissioned and premiered by the Philharmonic in 1968) shouldn’t be overlooked.

    But from what I’ve seen, commentary on the tenure of Maestro Gilbert and his new initiatives has linked him more directly with new music. It’s great for the composers (young and old) who are lucky enough to get to work with him and his band!

    Reply

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