Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Growing Ever More Provincial

Hanging in my studio is a poster from the XX Festival de Musica de Camera, which took place in 1998, the year I moved to where I live in Mexico. This modestly sized town (about 100,000) is something of a cultural center in Mexico, largely through the efforts of the expatriate American and Canadian community who have founded an excellent library, a bilingual weekly newspaper, a host of art galleries and several music festivals. The one I have the poster for is now called the "Festival Internacional de Música" and there have been some changes along the way.

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:


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! (I live in a major urban center so I don't have direct knowledge of that sort of trend.)

Re. the Albinoni, the opening theme is an obvious nod to Es Ist Vollbracht of the St John Passion. Of course, it's also possible that Bach lifted it from Albinoni himself. Has this been settled among music historians?

Bryan Townsend said...

Where do you live? I haven't done any research myself on the Albinoni, but as I understand it an Italian musicologist in the last century stumbled across some fragments attributed to him and cobbled up a pseudo-Baroque piece from them. So I think any resemblance to Bach is likely just a coincidence.

Anonymous said...

New York.

Today there would be a multi-million dollar lawsuit for plagiarism!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I would certainly call that a major urban center! More concerts than you can shake a stick at. Yes, plagiarism in music, which used to be pretty common--Handel plagiarized a bunch of Scarlatti sonatas, for example, is often taken to court these days.

Jives said...

I live in a fairly rural setting north of San Fran. Improbably, this wilderness supports 3 very good community orchestras, a festival, and a few chamber music series of good quality. But the quality of the talent really seems to boil down to the presence of a few big music personalities from the universities or major metropolitan symphonies doing the recruiting and organizing. It's all a clustering around certain leaders who have a gravitational pull, and an ability and inclination to organize.

As to programming, there's the same push to mix it up, and talk to the audience, program the crossover stuff. I think that's happening everywhere. My audiences seem to really appreciate the talking, though. So many musicians I know have such an erudite and amusing way of speaking and formulating ideas, I think it's valuable to share that with the audience.

Marc Puckett said...

The League of American Orchestras 'tracks member orchestras' programming through its Orchestra Repertoire Report' since 1970. 2011-2012 is the most recent season for which information is available. I don't imagine they'd do much rummaging about in the data if I asked, but they might respond to you, Bryan. There's an email address and telephone number here.

I could go to the archive of the Eugene Symphony and search through the old books and programs-- what I mean is, I asked about this last year and was told, sure, I could come in and assist in turning all the paper records into a searchable database as long as I made sure to come in when staff was in the offices, which pretty much killed my incipient volunteer work in that area-- but I think I'd have to devise some hypothesis other than 'the Orchestra's seasons have become more provincial with each passing decade' if I wanted to be surrounded by friendly faces downtown.

We aren't bothered by any more administrators' nonsense from the stage at the Eugene Symphony, pre- or post-, now than when I first began listening-- there's the occasional summons to thank the great and good benefactors, or to self-advertise a bit, but certainly not at every concert. I can't predict from what I've heard if the new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, is going to be chatty at every concert or if he feeling obliged to 'introduce himself'. Certainly, also, none of the soloists this past season or the one before that, felt the need or found it appropriate to talk at all. As for 'dumbing down the programming', well, that is going to mean one thing to a trained musician and professional such as you are, Bryan, and something else to me, I'd imagine.

The Symphony is giving two premieres this coming season of works by Augusta Read Thomas (two different concerts). There is a performance of Vivaldi's Quattro Stagioni in Spring next year that will be accompanied by images (photos, video) of the McKenzie River and environs submitted by the community which are being professionally edited into a 50 minute video that will be displayed on stage, accompanying the performance. Hmm. There is a piece by Gabriella Smith that'll precede the Vivaldi (and Elgar, after). Michael Daugherty's Tales of Hemingway (a Grammy this year!! so I'm told) at another concert. Otherwise, Grieg, Sibelius, Schubert, Wagner, Berlioz, Handel, Dvorák, Mozart, Ravel, Liszt, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. A couple of famous names as soloists (Barton Pine, Bailey), two or three not so famous (but of course it may just be that I don't recognise them). The major part of the program is certainly not daring! or intersectionally transgressive! but, eh, I imagine most everyone will be gratified in one way or another; and as for the new works, well, well, I'll wait and see. No idea what the Daugherty or Smith are like but the snippets of Read Thomas I've heard were not immediately off-putting.

Marc Puckett said...

[This is the second part-- evidently I went beyond 4,096 characters. As always, feel free to slash some of this off the page.] But if 'provincial' has come to mean those 'otherwise...' composers, then I'm all for provinciality-- the converse probably is, I don't want the 'new music scene' people from NYC and Chicago to replace the 'otherwise...' people (not that this is what you were suggesting). I myself will go out to listen to 'new music scene' artists (in principal, anyway, ahem-- am thinking of Alice Thigpen's A Woman of Salt but also of the grad students and professors at the U of O) but I want them (so to speak) on the side, as apéritif or first course or amuse-gueule, in addition to, the artists of the main classical tradition. There will be a Philip Glass premiere (Third Piano Concerto) at next season's OBF (unless that is exploded somehow between now and then)-- which I'll look forward to, very much so, even-- but not if the Bach and Handel and Bieber et alii aren't there as the main courses (to continue the metaphor of the meal).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for the input. My first take is that it is just us! The rest of the world is doing fine, which I am glad to hear. Taking a point from Jives, it makes me think that what has possibly happened here is that the passionate personalities that were the founders of our music festivals and series are long gone and the people running them now are more devoted to the simple continuance of the institution and much less devoted to the art of music.

Marc I agree entirely with your position that new music should be integrated into a balanced diet of classics. But of course, there can be new music events as well. I'm actually a big fan of the idea of in-depth programming. I would rather attend an all-Beethoven or even all-Bartók concert than the drearily predictable ones that we seem to get all the time: 18th century quartet, 20th century quartet and big Romantic quartet in the second half. Over and over and over again!

I'm almost certain that you meant "Biber" though, and not "Bieber?" Or have I been doing too many posts on pop music lately?

Thanks for the link to the orchestra association. When I get a chance I will contact them.

Marc Puckett said...

Bieber, ha, and 'principal'. All the more reason not to try making sense later in the evenings after having dined.

Will Wilkin said...

I find some comfort in the standard repertoire, the hearing again of familiar and beloved pieces, and rather like vegetables should form the bulk on your plate, the great symphonies and chamber works should, in my opinion, keep their central importance in our concert programs. I mean this statistically, not as a rigid and universal rule of course. Living close to the Yale School of Music, my son and I hear about 8 "New Music New Haven" concerts annually, where I delight in harshly criticizing most of the works that seem to me more laboratory experiments than finished products ready for the market. But the sheer stimulation and challenge of listening to totally new works that require full attention and rapid accommodation have made us big fans of that concert series. In fact, one of the faculty there who has seen us a hundred times over the years once commented that we are their biggest fans. Again, this is music I often love to hate.

The morale: its good to mix up the programs, the standard repertoire is less "boring" when accompanied by other less-known fare, whether historic or contemporary. All music was once new, and there is no substitute for time and generations of taste for sorting out which pieces most deserve entry into the repertoire.

Will Wilkin said...

And Marc, its just my personal taste but I've never much liked anything by Augusta Read Thomas. I've heard probably more than the average concert-goer because William Boughton, the illustrious Director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra is, I think, a bit smitten with this woman and has several times programmed her pieces. Also because I buy all the CDs I can get by Boughton and by the NHSO, I have a full CD of her music which I find almost impossible to finish whenever I put it on. Just not for my tin ear, I guess, since those more trained and talented than I seem to find good music in her....

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, I think I would call you a very enlightened conservative. Yes, contemporary music is a vital part of the concert experience. And if you happen to hear a good piece, well that's just the icing on the cake.

Marc Puckett said...

Will, Thanks for the heads up. Sometimes I'm convinced that half of the new music that gets programmed is performed because someone is smitten-- in one sense of the word or another-- with someone. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

That explains why composers these days are so good-looking.

Steven said...

As a composer, Bryan, you would say that