Thursday, April 10, 2014

Top Ten Composers and Pieces Actually Performed

A friend just sent me this information on composers and pieces most often performed by American symphony orchestras:

Top ten composers performed in American symphonic concert halls, 2010-11
1. Beethoven
2. Mozart
3. Tchaikovsky
4. Brahms
5. Ravel
6. Dvorak
7. Sibelius
8. Prokofiev
9. Stravinsky
10. Rachmaninoff 

Top ten pieces performed in American symphonic concert halls, 2010-11
1. Brahms, Symphony No. 1
2. Mussorgsky, 
Pictures at an Exhibition
3. Tchaikovsky, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra
4. Beethoven, Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra
5. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7
6. Liszt, Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra
7. Berlioz, 
Symphonie fantastique
8. Sibelius, Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra
9. Tchaikovsky, Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra
10. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 

I really wish we had the same information for Europe, the UK, Canada, Russia, etc. But look at how this diverges from my lists and the New York Times list. Neither of us had Tchaikovsky or Ravel or Dvorak or Prokofiev on our lists. I am rather delighted to see Mr. Sibelius, though. And chagrined to see Brahms. Notice that Berlioz, one of my choices for under-rated composers, wins a spot on one of the lists. And two, count 'em, two of Brahms' symphonies make the pieces list, but only one of Beethoven's.

This probably, at least a bit indirectly, reflects symphony-goers' tastes. The people who program symphony concerts pay a lot of attention to what their ticket-buyers seem to like. But as I said, I really would like to see these lists for other countries. Oh, the reason that Bach does not appear on either list is that little of his music is really suitable for performance by a 19th century type orchestra.



A.C. Douglas said...

Oh, the reason that Bach does not appear on either list is that little of his music is really suitable for performance by a 19th century type orchestra.

Begging your pardon but that's rubbish. Bach's music transcends whatever ensemble might be used to perform it. Always. The reason his name doesn't appear on those two lists, sad to say, is that this is America.


Bridge said...

Plus, the same can easily be said about Beethoven. His symphonies and other orchestral works especially are almost inarguably superior on period instruments vs. modern ones. Especially detestable are Barenboim-style readings with large ensembles which seem to be in vogue (woodwinds in threes, four horns and a large string section;) they don't appeal to me very much although certainly not horrible.

However, I saw Bach's violin concerto in a and Rameau's Dardanus suite last year played on modern instruments and the result was I would say pretty successful. What do you mean unsuitable?

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps you aren't familiar with The Music Salon? We say rubbishy things on a daily basis here. But let me fill in some of the blanks for you. Bach is not hated in America, but loved, much like in other countries. He was at the top of the New York Times list of greatest composers and Jeremy Denk has just released a recording of the Goldberg Variations that is selling pretty well. I think Chris Thile's album of Bach on mandolin did pretty well too and got a great review in the Wall Street Journal. Even though I didn't personally think it actually "transcended" that particular instrument.

I would love to hear you substantiate that wild claim that "Bach's music transcends whatever ensemble might be used to perform it. Always." You obviously haven't heard Joe Blogg's accordion orchestra do a hit and run on the Brandenburgs!

And for the coup de grâce, here are the first five clips that come up if you search for "J. S. Bach" on YouTube:

Sinfonias from the cantatas played by a Baroque chamber orchestra
Complete Lute Works on Baroque lute
Orchestral Suites played by a Baroque chamber orchestra
The Brandenburg Concertos, likewise
The Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d'Amore, likewise

The orchestras that were surveyed were all larger, 19th century type orchestras.

Bryan Townsend said...

@ Bridge: it used to be the case that Bach was always played in regular orchestra concerts. And I'm sure he still is. But these lists show that it is less so than before. Audiences are more used to hearing the Brandenburgs and Orchestral Suites and Violin Concertos and so on played by early music ensembles.

And yes, it all depends on how you play the music. Modern instruments can be fine.

Bridge said...

The main point is that "unsuitable" is pretty poorly defined here. How is Bach unsuitable and Beethoven is, is my question.

A.C. Douglas said...

@Bryan Townsend: Please don't put your words in my mouth. I never said nor suggested that Bach was "hated in America." I merely suggested that in America Bach was not popular enough to be among the Top Ten most performed composers by American symphony orchestras here and the fact that he isn't among that Top Ten had nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstance that those orchestras were of the sort that were "not really suitable" to perform Bach's music, as you put it. The very idea that any first-rate modern orchestra is "not really suitable" to perform Bach's music is patently absurd.


sumon prodhan said...
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Bryan Townsend said...

@A. C. Douglas: Sorry if I didn't capture your intention exactly. It was a bit ambiguous. Now that you have stated it more clearly, I see that some explanation is in order, so I will do a new post on just why a "first-rate modern orchestra is 'not really suitable' to perform Bach's music." Instead of the idea being "patently absurd" (I believe I am quoting you exactly), it is simply an historical fact that Bach did not write for the modern symphony orchestra. It has nothing to do with competence.

Bridge said...

But neither did Beethoven. In fact, as early as the the late 19th century his orchestrations were already outdated with some famous critiques of his brass parts in particular appearing around this time. Modern brass is literally unsuitable for his music and when played on period instruments there are almost no imbalances and consequently the music sounds much better. But of course, Beethoven can sound good on modern instruments if the conductor pays expert attention to these balances instead of conducting it exactly as written, and so can Bach. As I understood it though your comment was supposed to mean something like: "Bach isn't played by large symphony orchestras because his music is not written for large symphonic orchestras," which is of course true. The ensembles used to play Bach might even be sarcastically called glorified chamber orchestras which aren't really at home in a huge concert hall preceding or especially not following a monster orchestra required to play such pieces as The Planets. Right?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, true, but I I don't think anyone is actually going to say that Beethoven's orchestrations are "outdated", are they? His orchestrations are appropriate to the musical ideas.

But I think you get my point. See today's post for the details.

Bridge said...

What I meant is only that the score was at that point in time not a real representation of the instruments that would have been used to play it. The orchestral textures themselves are of course excellent, hugely imaginative, but the sounds created by a modern orchestra are not those Beethoven had in mind when he wrote the music, hence it is hardly fair to accuse him of writing imbalanced brass when the brass instruments grew in carrying power exponentially only after his death. It's a void criticism because you're retroactively applying modern concepts and technology to past works. One might just as well claim Bach was unsure of how he wanted his music to sound because his scores aren't cluttered with expressive markings and other directions, but in actuality the divine status afforded scores was not something Bach would have related to. As you probably well know, almost certainly better than me, musicians back then were expected to fill in the blanks themselves, depending on the conventions they adhered to or their own musical ambitions.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm not sure we can know exactly what was in Beethoven's mind, but we can know what he wrote and the instruments he wrote for, so we can come up with an approximation of what it might have sounded like during his lifetime. That is what a number of ensembles are trying to do these days.

Yes, of course, knowing a bit of history is pretty important!