Sunday, May 31, 2015

What's Being Played

The Baltimore Symphony had an interesting idea: to embed a journalist with the orchestra who would write, not just about what was going on in their orchestra, but in classical music generally. As a big part of the problem these days is with the audience's unfamiliarity with classical music, this seems like a great idea. Here is the link. One of the things the reporter, Ricky O'Bannon, did was to compile some statistics for Baltimore and a lot of other American orchestras about what was being played. Here is the summary. One thing that I found interesting is that there is more music by living (and women) composers played than you might think. Not a huge amount, but more than you might think. Here are the top pieces played, in order. Some surprising things on that list. Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition is the most popular piece after the Messiah? Holy cow! Lots of Beethoven, sure, but the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 beat out each and every Mozart piano concerto? I wonder if this kind of tabulating simply disfavors a composer who wrote twenty great piano concertos, any single one of which is performed less than, say, the Brahms? There is no Mozart at all on this list, but he comes as the second most-performed composer on the other list. He just wrote too many great pieces, obviously.

A composer like Mussorgsky, who wrote a few fine pieces, but only one that has become really popular and famous, has, not only statistically, but also in public perception, a prominence that is really out of proportion to his real musical significance. Looking at the lists, you can see that composers like Mozart, who certainly get the performances, are probably still underrated in the public mind compared to composers who did not write hundreds upon hundreds of masterpieces, but just one or two. And poor Haydn, who also wrote hundreds of masterpieces, is even more ignored!

The most-performed living composers is an interesting list. Extracting from the graphic, they are:

  1. John Adams
  2. Mason Bates
  3. Jennifer Higdon
  4. Christopher Rouse
  5. Esa-Pekka Salonen
  6. Thomas Adès
I wonder why they only chose the top 6? In any case, the second on the list, Mason Bates, I don't think I have even heard of before. He is young, in his early 30s, and currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. Checking around, I see that I have heard him before--he contributed a short piece to Hilary Hahn's encore album.

Let's see what orchestral music of his we can find on YouTube. The only one I can find is the orchestral suite "The B-Sides", here performed by The Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Octavio Mas-Arocas:


David said...

Bryan, thanks for giving me something that will divert my attention from the addictive, mindless game of BubbleBlaster that made its way onto my mobile device. Data like that in the Baltimore survey of 22 orchestras can keep a classical music nerd occupied for ... (an eternity?).

I share your bewilderment/sympathy for poor Papa H. Only 7 of his symphonies earlier than #50 were programmed. The enterprising Utah orchestra actually presented #5 (I guess they needed a short sweet antidote to Mahler #2!) Audiences in 15 cities got some Hayden (none for Atlanta, Cinci, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Pittsburgh, or DC). Sibelius fared better in the distribution race, 18 of the 22 orchestras programmed the Finn (by comparison, Brahms and Mozart were heard in 20 cities and Ludwig van batted a thousand, making an appearance in each of the surveyed locations).

On the topic of early works, it is noteworthy that only 3 of Mozart's symphonies older than #35 were programmed, and none earlier than #25.

Not sure that anything can be made of all of this in light of the observation attributed to Disraeli about "lies, damned lies and statistics", but it is fun.


Bryan Townsend said...

Always glad to help! (And I have a passing addiction to Civilization V.) Where did you find that fine-grained data? If there was a link to it, I missed it. I'm listening to all the Haydn symphonies again, only in the 2nd CD at the moment, but, unlike Mozart, there really are no "immature" Haydn symphonies. Even the very first is an excellent piece. Sibelius is pretty popular, and justifiably so.

David said...

Bryan, all the data you could desire is neatly provided at the "explore the data" link near the bottom of the O'Bannon summary article you linked.

A little Haydn nugget: #103 (Paukenwirbel/Drumroll) got 13 performances in the surveyed season.

A Hayden soup-to-nuts symphony audition sounds like a great project. Are you sampling a range of performers or one of the cycles (Fischer and Dorati and the Naxos selected bands come to mind).

Have you ventured into the HIP vibrato battlefield on your blog?


Bryan Townsend said...

I think I clicked on that link, but it was slow to load and I didn't see the table come up, so I didn't realize it was there. Thanks! The "Drumroll" was one of the first Haydn symphonies I ever owned, many years ago. And still one of my favorites. Last year I picked up the box of the complete symphonies in the performance by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Not a early music ensemble, but quite good nonetheless. It was such a bargain I couldn't resist.

I have been involved with the early music what, movement? In any case, since my early days in university when I was drafted to play lute in a couple of ensembles. I also did a summer course on the lute. But my main career was as a guitar virtuoso so I spent most of my time playing the big Spanish stuff, contemporary stuff, concertos, that kind of thing. However, I did always play a fair amount of early music, with, I hope, some historical awareness. I may have been the only one to have ornamented Milan fantasias according to the style of the period--at least, I have heard no-one else doing it. Much much later, while doing the seminar work for a doctorate in musicology, I read the various critiques of the "authentic" instrument players by Richard Taruskin. Some of this is found in his collection of essays titled "Text and Act". He has some interesting and radical perspectives on all this.

Let's face it, a lot of the HIP stuff is mere marketing and some of the rest is, as Taruskin points out, to satisfy OUR tastes, 20th century tastes, first of all. But I think he goes a bit too far in that direction.

No, I haven't posted about vibrato specifically, but sounds like a good idea!