First Words: A Panel Discussion About Reviewing Premieres

Perceptions About

FRANK J. OTERI: Barbara made an interesting comment about hearing Philip Glass the first time and not liking it and subsequently finding minimalist pieces that she did like. It raises an interesting question. How are we judging something when we judge it? Are we judging it on its own terms? In art criticism–visual art criticism–there’s a very big movement to judge a painting by how it fulfills its own terms rather than necessarily your own view of it. But is that always an intellectually honest position? If you just simply don’t like that style no matter how good it is, how honest are you being to yourself or your readers if you deal with it that way in your writing. Obviously, you should be laying your cards on the table because maybe it’s unfair for you to be covering it if you don’t like that style. But it’s also dishonest to say if you don’t like something, that you know, “Well, this is a good piece of this.” I’m wondering, John, in your experience, you perform music of such stylistic variety and a lot of times somebody might not be familiar with that particular style or where it fits into the trajectory of new music…

JOHN KENNEDY: Certainly, as one of the arbiters sometimes of what gets performed and what doesn’t…I mean so many scores come to me by composers or from publishers, and I’m looking at what I’m going to perform and all my own tastes and dislikes are going to come in to it. I think, certainly in my own experience, I’ve evolved a lot over the years. When I was younger I was much more polemical about, you know, what music needed to be advocated stylistically. Now I feel like we are in such a sort of healthier place in our musical culture where the style wars are just so passÈ, no one cares about them. At least it doesn’t feel like the composers are so concerned about them anymore and it’s smooth…there’s a lot of fresh air in that regard.

DAVID STOCK: Except in Europe, where it’s key.

JOHN KENNEDY: Except in Europe. It is key. You’re exactly right.

FRANK J. OTERI: Except you know, interestingly enough, those battles don’t die that quickly as I discovered on our own forums on NewMusicBox. There are some very polemical posters who are in one camp or in the other and if you say something about minimalism, then all the serialist people come out and say, “Why are you covering this nonsense?” And if you cover serialism, all the people on the downtown side say, “Why are you covering all of this academic, mathematical stuff?” And the twain still doesn’t meet for some people. For us, covering this, entering into this fray, writing for a general public that might not even be aware of these stylistic wars and where things fit. We’re trying to make a context not where that piece fits in with that camp or with that style, but where it fits in in the larger picture of a concert that will feature, you know, a Tchaikovsky violin concerto or a Mozart string quartet and trying to make this bigger picture. Anything that’s new music, whether it is from one camp or the other, is new music to the general public.


DAVID STOCK: Well, actually, it’s even worse than that because sadly after 90 years if you say contemporary music or new music or any of those words to your average B-flat concertgoer, he or she still thinks it’s, you know, atonal–whatever that means to them. You know, we’re still battling the Schoenberg 1909 battles all over. In their context, in other words, we who live with this stuff, whether we are composers or performers or journalists or whatever, know that time marches on. But your ordinary person who says that he or she loves Schubert or whatever, thinks that it’s still all like that and they have this instant response that is negative. New music in general has had very bad PR, mostly from its own doing, for a long time. Blame Schoenberg, you know, Schoenberg is allowed to answer for it in this regard. The Society for Private Performances is one of the most significant things to happen to music in the whole 20th century. It only lasted a couple of years but, boy, we’ve still got echoes of it now in ways that I wish it didn’t.

JOHN KENNEDY: You’re not exaggerating. We have a concert tonight at 8 P.M. and two people have called our office this week to ask if the music is atonal.

DAVID STOCK: Right. There you go.


WILLIAM LITTLER: Well, it’s your own fault. You’ve gone ahead of the audience and your language has progressed and developed at a faster rate than the audience is able to absorb. And remember, we don’t have to give lectures on music history now, but the commonality of musical language has broken down in the 20th century and it’s taken so many different directions and the amount of newness represented by each piece has increased to such a state that it’s difficult for the audience to know enough to be able to be aware of what’s going on. That’s the fact of the matter that we all have to live with. Now, there’s another factor too. You mentioned Schoenberg. He did, in that famous quotation, say: “My music isn’t really modernist, it’s just badly performed.” And the fact of the matter is the difficulty of it isn’t sufficiently addressed in rehearsal and so we often are hearing performances of music in which the music isn’t able to build its own case strongly enough because the resources haven’t been there to prepare it. Because it is more difficult to perform. So there are all sorts of complex issues here, but the audience cannot totally be blamed for the problem. It’s an aesthetic problem that is the result of the progress of the evolution of music.

DAVID STOCK: If I may respectfully disagree with something you said, the newness factor is gone. In other words, there’s really been nothing new in music since about 1964. I mean, the birth of minimalism

WILLIAM LITTLER: True, true. I was talking about the 20th century.

JOHN KENNEDY: Well, I respectfully disagree, but…

DAVID STOCK: Well, come on! I mean, there’s nothing really new stylistically that’s come down the pipe. There have been some modifications, there’s certainly some technological advances in the field of electronics but that’s the last new thing and that’s, you know, a third of a century ago. It’s more than that, isn’t it, now? That’s a long time for the newness factor to have gone away. If we’re talking strictly about concert music, O.K.? So I think that’s…that’s no longer as true as it once was.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what about that turntable concert?

DAVID STOCK: That’s what I said. Technologically there are some differences. Certainly the influences of rock and the more far out versions of rock such as the turntable people etc., have started to creep into concert music, but it is still relatively minor compared to the time from 1906 to 1964. I mean, the rate of change is way slowed-down.

JOHN KENNEDY: But the audience alienation to certain kinds of new music and what that means, and then how you have to write about it–it’s not just a result of the arc in evolution of music itself. It’s part of the habits that we have culturally, which include what constitutes a concert, what we wear, what the program should be, and how it should be listened to and how it should be reviewed. And I mean, it’s my dream that in my lifetime we’ll see an orchestra that will play new music or music from the last 50 years or 100 years and that for something different they’ll insert in the program something that is 200 years old by someone from a different culture, you know.

JIM VAN SANT: I’ve been listening for the last 10 days to a radio transcription of L’amour de loin and probably a lot of you have too. And at one point, the old phrasemaker, I do all kinds of dumb things about polishing up my rhetoric before I even know what I want to say–but I had to say to myself, I’m going to write that there is nothing in this opera that could not have been written after 1925. It was all written–the whole vocabulary, all the architecture, everything, was all ready to go as soon as Franz Schreker finished his most important operas in the 1920s, especially the Christophorus. And though I had to think to myself, “You old fool, that’s not what this opera is about!” And I don’t think it makes any difference whether the new materials of music stopped in 1964 or whether they’re still going on. Who was that marvelous anthropologist at Harvard who died prematurely about three months ago, his name leaves me?


JIM VAN SANT: Stephen Jay Gould had some really interesting things to say on that subject and he would agree with those who say that new music, contemporary music, newly composed music is not popular because there really isn’t anything else new to say. I would disagree with that too because I am not as qualified as most of the rest in that regard. I think it’s the way materials are arranged. I think it’s the artfulness of the dramatic situation. I think it’s the text. I do think it’s the performance–big time. Gosh, what’s happened to Dawn Upshaw? She’s gotten a lot better. She’s singing in tune in this opera, it’s fantastic. These things–that’s just an abstract example–these things I think are highly relevant to our enjoyment of the piece and also to its validity. I don’t know that some of the very greatest top 10 names in classical music were always doing something new or using something new.

BARBARA JEPSON: Exactly. Exactly.

JIM VAN SANT: I think it’s how they use stuff. And I will respectfully suggest that if you do have time to get repeated exposure to a piece of music, that will present itself as one of the core elements to think about

BARBARA JEPSON: If I could just interject something the composer Paul Moravec said, he said, “In our time, we have an addiction to neophilia.” [laughter] And this obsession with the new, somehow that has been elevated above every other value in terms of assessing a piece of music. I think it’s certainly a valid thing to consider, but it’s by no means the only one. I mean, you can look, I don’t think Bach was considered new at certain points in his career. There were times when he was very old-fashioned and out-of-date in relationship to what his sons were doing and his sons’ contemporaries. And we don’t hold that against him now.

DAVID STOCK: I’m sorry, I’ve got tell you a great story about something that happened, gosh, this is already a long time ago. Roughly around 1966, right at the height of the “you gotta be new, you gotta be different” time, right? I was a graduate student at Brandeis University and a friend of mine was working as a graduate assistant in the electronic studio. Remember now, this is still early so we’re talking about razor blades and splicing, right? So a composer came from Israel to write in the Brandeis studio and he had this fabulous idea, he’s going to write a piece based on baby cries. So he goes in there and he has my friend, who shall remain nameless, a pretty good composer, he’s gonna help him with this piece and he tells my friend what he wants to do. He’s going to write a piece based on baby cries. And my friend says, “Gee, that’s really interesting. My last electronic piece was based on the baby cries of my daughter.” So the guy looked at him in horror, went back to his dorm, packed his bags, and went back to Israel. [laughter] Because somebody had already done a piece with baby cries. You see? There’s no point in doing it anymore.

WILLIAM LITTLER: But the history of criticism is the history of criticizing the new. It’s only in recent generations that we’ve been preoccupied with performance practice. And in fact to be a music critic was to be a witness for what was happening and to communicate that and I hope we haven’t lost that sense of priority. But because so much of what we review is not new, we tend to be oriented toward performance and I think some of our skills in appreciating the new may not be as sharp as they need to be.

DIMITRI DROBATSCHEWSKY: Do you remember, David, serving with me on a panel in Chautauqua?

DAVID STOCK: Yeah, where was it? Chautauqua, O.K. That’s where it was.

DIMITRI DROBATSCHEWSKY: There was an experience that we had together. This was a panel of music critics and composers–contemporary composers obviously since they were sitting on the panel and we were presenting to a very knowledgeable audience. Anybody who goes to a seminar in Chautauqua at least has the desire to be knowledgeable. They are not the average public. And during this panel a soprano was asked to perform a new piece–I don’t think it was yours but it may have been yours–imitating birds. Now, the soprano to begin with was not–she was not Dawn Upshaw. She was not good looking. She sang probably quite well, but the music she had to perform without any introduction to it was difficult to absorb to put it politely. And as she sang and it was over, people applauded politely and we were ready to pack up and go home. It was 5 o’clock and before we could really get up, a little white-haired gentleman in the audience raised his hand and said, “If I may please say something,” and we generously allowed him to say something and he started to tear into the performer and the composer in his high-pitched geezer voice. He went ahead, “How dare you insult me! My intelligence, my sense of aesthetics with this awful noise. How could you do this to me? How could you people allow this to be performed?” This was the reaction to something that was different and new. I don’t remember if we calmed the guy down or…

DAVID STOCK: Never, no.

DIMITRI DROBATSCHEWSKY: But it was an incident, which I have to–I do some lectures up there. I cite, I quote this incident because it’s very, very, I think, relevant, if nothing else.