The artists listed on the poster from 1998 are the Chilingrian String Quartet, the Tokyo String Quartet, the Ying String Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet, the Lark String Quartet and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. This year the artists were the Meccore String Quartet, the Scherzo String Quartet with guitarist Alfredo Muro, the Dover Quartet, the Ensamble Tamayo (sic), the Daedalus Quartet, Alejandro Barrañón, pianist and the Eroica Piano Trio.
Yes, there is a considerable lowering of quality these days. Of the previous roster, the Tokyo Quartet at least was a world-class ensemble and nearly as accomplished were the Chilingrian Quartet. The others were quite good as well. This year the Daedalus Quartet sounded to me not much better than a student ensemble and their performance was tentative and low energy.
But there are other changes as well that lie a bit under the surface. One of the most problematic of these is the programming. There was one substantial Beethoven quartet, op. 59 no. 3; the only other one performed was the weakest of the early op. 18, the C minor. Haydn did have one from op. 20 and another from op. 50, but the other quartet by Haydn was from op. 1, almost before the string quartet had even come to be. No Mozart, but two quartets by Robert Schumann who was, frankly, not a very important quartet composer. There were a number of pieces that should not have even been programmed unless all you wanted was to pander to an unsophisticated audience: the incomprehensibly popular Astor Piazzolla, a Vivaldi Trio Sonata, the ubiquitous Albinoni Adagio, and a bunch of piano transcriptions of 19th century orchestral chestnuts.
Another disquieting trend is in the presentation. Not one concert is allowed to begin without being prefaced by irrelevant amplified hectoring remarks by the administrators of the festival and all the performers are required, it seems, to deliver impromptu remarks before every piece. Sometimes this descends into the infantile as when the cellist for the trio insisted on telling us how much she loved the Albinoni as a child.
The audience used to respond to every performance with a standing ovation at the end, but more and more it seems that they just get up to get to the exit quicker. Encores almost never happen any more.
These same trends are also occurring in the other main classical music series, Pro Musica, at which every season seems to see poorer pianists than the year before. The programming is dull and repetitive and the hectoring from the administration and the condescending remarks from the performers seem more annoying each season.
What is happening here is the slow dumbing down of events previously devoted to a high art: classical chamber music. One of the reasons these events exist is that this community is too small to be able to afford orchestral concerts, so we make do with string quartets, piano trios, violin and piano ensembles and solo pianists. The people that manage these events do a good job from a budget standpoint: they have to as there is little or no government funding. But the committees that run things do not, since I resigned, include any professionally trained musicians. So the only factors that they take seriously are attendance and costs. Inevitably, challenging and original programming and the more expensive artists are simply not seen as worth it.
The long term results are that people like myself and like my violinist friend that I often attend concerts with find the concerts more and more annoying and less and less satisfying aesthetically. I used to go to perhaps half of the festival concerts and a third of the Pro Musica concerts, but now it averages about one each per season, which is the number of concerts with an interesting looking program.
I won't generalize from my experience to other places, but I would love to hear from my commentators.
In the 20th century it seemed that one important trend was the growing cosmopolitanism of many smaller centers as they grew in population and became more familiar with the intellectual and artistic trends of the day. In the 21st century it seems that the opposite is taking place with smaller centers becoming ever more provincial with each passing year.
For an envoi, what else but the Albinoni Adagio which was not written by the 18th century Tomaso Albinoni, but is actually a pastiche by the 20th century musicologist Remo Giazotto. This is the Copernicus Chamber Orchestra, Horst Sohm conductor: