Sunday, September 8, 2013

With Friends Like These...

A while back I mentioned a particularly lengthy book review by Richard Taruskin in which he bemoans the fact that:
The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible.
He goes on to say that one must always be prepared to defend classical music from its devotees! I think we have seen a lot of examples recently. The Minnesota Orchestra seems desperately to need to defend itself from its own management! In this post I gave reasons why I thought that classical music needed a defense against the head of Universal Music's classical music unit. It seems that classical music also needs to defend itself against the ex-CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He said:
The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.
I'm sure this is very gratifying to the ego of the CEO, but it does nothing more than lower the prestige of classical music while it does not lead more people to attend concerts. Why bother when the patrimony of classical music is nothing but a necrocracy? That last quote comes from this article, which gives a pretty good overview of the problem. Here is a sample of the article's take on things:
Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and as not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies. They talk about education but have in many places done away with program notes. Marketing material uses a hyperbolic language of emotional engagement to oversell the concert experience, implying that one has only to pull up a rug and surrender to the music. That musical appreciation takes work, and that its greatest rewards are cumulative over a lifetime rather than immediate, is not much discussed.
"Snake oil" sounds like an accurate estimate. The article makes the further point that everything that orchestras do thinking they will attract bigger audiences--pops concerts, trendy things like "crowd-sourced" compositions, politically-correct messages and other kinds of musical trivia--tend to drive away serious listeners. That leads to a death-spiral of more trivia and fewer and fewer serious listeners.

I think we can see Taruskin's point that a lot of the so-called defenders of classical music, the people who write the books of music appreciation that avoid actually informing the reader, the popularizers that cheapen the music, the syntheses of classical and pop, the marketing and performing of classical music with a pop sensibility, all this is what we really need to defend ourselves against. The traitors in our midst are far more dangerous than the barbarians out there roaming the hinterlands with their boom box cars.

Let's end with one of those dead composers that is oppressing us, the Piano Concerto No. 25 by Mozart, played by Mitsuko Uchida:


Rickard Dahl said...

That was a lengthy article and even lengthier combination of reviews. It was a few days I've read the article about American orchestras so I don't remember it as well. If I remember it right, the point the author was trying to make is that orchestras lose more by trying to reach new audiences. I think he has a point, why do not stick with what you do best and where you already have an audience? Anyways, time for some personal experience.
I already mentioned how operas try to make things "relevant" by making ridiculous modernizations to how things look on the scene, how the actors act etc. Rather than gaining new audiences by their historically incorrect freakshows they probably scare away them. It scared me away at least. I don't want to go to the opera unless they are actually trying to portray what it says in the original libretto. The orchestra in town does have a few special events, such as popicals (some kind of relatively unknown hipster/indie crowd artists sing while the orchestra plays), there's a jazz series (I don't think the orchestra here plays a big roles, it's often guest artists playing), there are also some world music concerts (but again it's probably more a matter of artists coming to the concert hall rather than the orchestra playing), there's a concert series for schoolkids and families (I think it's pretty good actually as it doesn't seem to dumb down the music by simplifying it (i.e. making it more "child friendly"), I guess the music pieces tend to be shorter (or just movements out of certain pieces)), this year there's a Beatles tribute and a video game music concert (already got a ticket for it). However, possible what certain orchestras may have lost is the main focus on classical music. I don't think that's the case with Gotheneburg's Symphony Orchestra. There are plenty of regular classical concerts which include a wide variety of music. They play a combination of the usual stuff (Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Haydn etc.) but often include Northern European composers (Sibelius, Grieg, Atterberg, Stenhammar, Nielsen, Shostakovich(I guess the Russians can be included in this list too)) and have a fair share of more radical works performed (the orchestral color type compositions I've earlier described). Either way at the season opening concert the CEO said they have sold 30% more tickets compared with last year's figure at the season opening. So, whatever the cause, it's going well for them.

As for the reviews by Richard Taruskin, he has lots of valid points such as "Classical music is not dying; it is changing.". Whether it is change for the better or worse is a different matter. The protectors writing books on how to approach classical music may have good intentions but their approach is indeed flawed. They seem to get many historical facts wrong but probably no single area of cultural or political history or just purely history has been completely bright, in fact history is pretty dark and cruel. But as I've mentioned earlier I don't agree with Taruskin's approach that classical music isn't valid anymore because of its' history. Sometimes one needs to take a step back and realise that what matters in the end is the music. And with internet we have incredible access to classical music (recordings, sheet music, information, books, education, documentaries etc.). So the question is not whether classical music is politically correct but how do we get people to discover it, to want to explore it etc. Anyways, what do you think can be done to get more people interested in classical music?

Bryan Townsend said...

Richard Taruskin, while probably the leading musicologist writing in English today, has drunk just a bit of the "new" musicology Kool-Aid. I mean that he feels he has to problematize everything and someone like Beethoven becomes a target. But he is always interesting and thought-provoking.

What do I think can be done to get more people interested in classical music? Lots of different things, probably. This blog is my personal response to that question: I am trying as hard as I can to present what I think are the right reasons to listen to good music. Not just classical, though what we call classical music (Western European style music written between 1000 AD and now) has, in my view, the greatest repertoire of extraordinary music. I also think that there is good music from other traditions: Indian classical music, rock music, 'folk' music (if that includes people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen), jazz, gamelan and so on.

Great music sells itself; you just have to present it properly.

Rickard Dahl said...

A quote from a great comment (by JakeH) on the "America's Orchestras are in Crisis" Article:
"That's not to say that orchestra programmers should eschew contemporary works or unusual works. Certainly not -- they should mix it up. But those new or unusual works have to be good! Too much of what we hear is insipid, preoccupied with new "sound worlds" and clunky tone-painting, clumsy efforts to do something fresh and accessible -- little that's beautiful and/or musically interesting, much destined for just a few public performances, and nothing that really holds its own among the greats -- meager food for heart and mind."

Exactly the problem with the newer works I sometimes hear when attending the orchestra. The orchestras need to be more aesthetically sensitive when picking works to perform. An example of something pretty bad:

As for something newer music that sounds pretty good, two examples are: Kalevi Aho's Percussion Concerto and Tan Dun's Earth Concerto (neither are available on Youtube though, Tan Dun has an interesting way of mixing Western and Eastern musical influences and using sounds (using unusual items as percussion) to express musical ideas much more effectively than John Cage, here's his Water Concerto:

Bryan Townsend said...

I just listened to a few minutes of the piece by Kaija Saariaho, but I heard nothing but sound effects and masses of pitches. It would help to see the score, but yes, I tend to agree. This is the sort of music that has been done to death. Amorphous masses of timbres with no themes, no rhythmic motifs, just atmosphere. Like watching clouds.

When I get a chance, I will have a listen to the Tan Dun piece.