American Repertoire Spring

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Reversing the ratio of American music to standard repertoire is long overdue in the programming of most American orchestras but I’ve recently been noticing a health change in direction.

Back in October 2005, I attended a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall, ostensibly to hear them play Chen Yi’s Si Ji (The Four Seasons), a New York premiere. I was very glad to have been there since the piece would later be one of the three finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and sometimes it takes years for finalists and even winners to get the recognized works released on commercial recordings. Often if you don’t get to hear it live at its premiere (or in this case, an additional performance during a tour), you’re out of luck for quite a while.

However, I also remember being really annoyed at having to sit through a performance of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 following the intermission. (Unless I’m running off to another premiere, I never leave a concert during intermission.) Now, don’t get me wrong; Brahms’s First ranks very high in my personal musical pantheon. I have multiple recordings of it at home, as well as a score which I’ve studied in depth. Back when I was a high school student, I even contemplated composing an electronic “symphony” that would conclude with variations on the famous theme from the fourth movement (though admittedly it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek since that theme was the melody for my high school’s school song). In fact, now that I’m in my late 40s, Brahms continues to be a source of inspiration to me since he didn’t complete the piece until he was 43 years old—a beacon of hope for those of us who still haven’t penned our first symphony.

So the reason I was frustrated by that Cleveland performance had nothing to do with Brahms’s music. Rather it was because I had just sat through a really tremendous live performance of Brahms’s First just 48 hours earlier done by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of guest conductor Marin Alsop only a few blocks north of Carnegie at Lincoln Center. (I was at that concert to hear a piece by James MacMillan.) With all the amazing repertoire that is out there and the fact that so little of it gets done, I was incensed that the two most prominent presenters of orchestral music in New York City would have scheduled the same piece in such close proximity; it seemed a real waste of precious resources despite my fondness for that particular symphony.

Ironically, this season I have experienced several “repeat performances” of works, and those have made me very happy. For me, one of the highlights of the 2013 Spring for Music (I attended five of the six concerts) was hearing the Detroit Symphony, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, play all four of Ives’s numbered symphonies back to back. Yet, less than a month ago, I had heard a performance of Ives’s Fourth Symphony by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Alan Gilbert. Admittedly, though I deeply admire Brahms’s First, I worship Ives’s Fourth and never tire of hearing it. But part of that, I think, is because it is so rarely performed.

In an even weirder twist of fate, earlier this month at the Cleveland Museum of Art I participated in a live performance of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia extravaganza HPSCHD , a piece that gets done with even less frequency than Ives’s Fourth, and as a result I missed the concurrent performance of the piece in New York City. However, I heard the Cleveland Orchestra led by James Feddeck perform John Adams’s Shaker Loops in Cleveland on May 1 and merely three days later I heard Marin Alsop lead the Baltimore Symphony in a performance of the same piece at Carnegie Hall on May 4—one of the same orchestras, conductors, and venues involved with my Brahms’s First double dosage from eight years ago. Again, both of these repertoire reduxes made me happy rather than annoyed.

So, did I change my outlook about multiple performances in the intervening years? No. Is it rather that I am overly nationalistic and therefore am looking the other way when the piece getting the multiple performances is American repertoire? Ah, guilty as charged! The only way that any music created on our own soil will ever be able to compete with the standard repertoire—both in terms of audience devotion to it and the high level at which it is regularly performed—is for our own music to be programmed more frequently. And, at least from what I’m gleaning from my experiences thus far this year, that seems to be starting to happen.

Like the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Arab Spring that began in 2010, we seem to have entered a kind of—allow me the indulgence—“American Repertoire Spring.” But let’s hope that unlike what happened in Czechoslovakia (an eventual clamp down and a return to the prior status quo) or what is happening in the Middle East (perhaps too soon to tell but seemingly more unrest and violence than greater freedoms for more people), this long overdue, regularly occurring embrace of music by compatriots at some of our nation’s larger cultural institutions (something you would think would have always been the case but bizarrely has not) will hopefully continue and will flourish. At every performance I attended, the audiences appeared to be ecstatic. It seems obvious that to put our own musical achievements at the forefront of what gets presented at the major venues could only serve to get a greater number of people in this country interested in going to these venues.

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that, to my ears at least, the most extraordinarily performed concert of the entire week of Spring for Music programs seemed to be the final concert performed by Washington, D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach and that concert did not feature a single piece of American music. A tribute to Rostropovich, who served as the NSO’s music director from 1977 to 1994, the program was 100% Soviet repertoire—Slava, Slava by Rodion Shchedrin (albeit a work commissioned and premiered by the NSO), Shostakovich’s triumphant Fifth Symphony (allegedly a favorite of Stalin’s), and Alfred Schnittke’s amazing Viola Concerto, which my friend Jack Sullivan quipped afterwards sounded like a nervous breakdown set to music.

Here’s another bizarre programming twist: Of the five Spring for Music concerts I heard, two were all-American—the Ives immersion and the Albany Symphony’s program of Harbison, Gershwin, and Morton Gould’s formidable Third Symphony (a real discovery). Another two were all-Soviet—the aforementioned NSO gig and the Buffalo Phil which played Giya Kancheli’s hauntingly beautiful Morning Prayers followed by the epic Ilya Muromets by Reinhold Glière. (Admittedly the 1911 Ilya Muromets is pre-Soviet, but Glière remained in the USSR after the Bolshevik Revolution up until his death in 1956 and this piece has not really had much of a life outside of the Eastern Bloc.) Marin Alsop’s Baltimore program was half-Soviet (an incredible performance of the revised and expanded version of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony) and half-American (the Shaker Loops I mentioned above and a New York premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s concerto for the quasi-bluegrass trio Time for Three). All in all, this means that the repertoire for 5/6th of the proceedings were equally divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. (The program I missed breaks the paradigm. Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins was composed before he relocated to the USA, so is therefore not claimable as American repertoire. There were two works by Rachmaninoff—who, though admittedly Russian, had fled the Soviet Union and eventually emigrated to the United States—but since both of these works were composed long before his exile, they also cannot be claimed as American. And finally La Valse by French composer Maurice Ravel, which seems like a total red herring on this list.)

Anyway, as musically wonderful as the NSO’s performance was (and it really was), it seemed somewhat anticlimactic to me to present it after the DSO’s Ives bonanza. I kept wondering what someone outside our community would make of a program that offered absolutely no acknowledgement of music created in this country by an orchestra based in our nation’s capital that is named the “National Symphony Orchestra.” Clearly the American Repertoire Spring still has a long way to go.

One thought on “American Repertoire Spring

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Just two things, my dear friend.

    a) The “American repertoire spring” is inspiring. We all should be happy due to the high standards of US orchestras, and the respect they have all over the world. Maybe is a sign that the people who schedule pieces realize that more and more perople are willing to hear music of the last decades, and of their OWN country.

    b) I’m also a lover of Brahms’ First. I definitely love it. I haven’t studied the score in depth, but I had looked at it and discovered many things.

    Reply

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