Friday, January 27, 2012

The best kind of review:

I probably conduct between 10 and 15 performances (of one kind or another) every year.  While not at the level of a Valery Gergiev (he numbers in the 100s) one still goes through a fair amount of repertoire at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of the ensemble.  Of course nearly every performance receives wondrous accolades from audience members, colleagues, and even the musicians themselves (who are most often their own harshest critics). 

But just today, I received probably the most meaningful critique of a performance.  It come from a former teaching colleague who was born and raised in Bosnia:

"Speaking of...the summer performances "unter den linden" in that park - the name of which already escapes me - on the bluffs above Mississippi, it was one late afternoon in July of 2004 when I stopped by to listen, to meet and greet you. It  was a pleasant evening and I was feeling chipper in spite of the 210 or miles I just drove from Des Moines.  In Des Moines, in the state capital, earlier that afternoon, and surrounded by about 550 people from some 50 or 100 countries around the world, I was conferred citizenship of the United State of America; after 23 years of acrimony and fear, fear ranging from uncertainty  about where and what next year to fear of a knock on my shabby apartment door.  After 23 years of bitter fights, lost or unapplied and unapplyable jobs, a career derailed and pretty much lost, after a dissolution of 23 years of marriage, after a mid-size graveyard of lost dreams, I was a proud USA citizen. As I entered the park your orchestra intoned the first cords of the Star Spangled Banner - in an almost eerily perfect timing.  The tears that the music brought to my eyes were, I still think I remember, caused by so many diverse evocations and memories that for a moment I forgot whether I should feel happy or sad. In a moment's shrug I fogot about everything and determinedly walked toward the source of the music. It was a good moment in my little life, a moment filled with a wonderful lightness of just being."

The Star Spangled Banner.  The work with which I've opened many a concert.  The work that many a singer has butchered and many an audience have ignored.  A presentation of a national anthem should never be a performance.  Instead, it is a communal anthem to be sung by all with honor and reverence.  This is a lesson I learned today from a Bosnian.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why not.....?

As stated in the New York Times, "Ireland has one; Sweden has one; even Iraq has one."  Thus, Carnegie Hall announced the formation of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.  Funding (reported to be in the millions of dollars as there is no tuition or fees) will come from Joan and Sanford L. Weill (long associated with Carnegie), the Weill Family Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.

The USA first had a national youth orchestra that was organized and auditioned by Leopold Stokowski in the 1940, but the group was disbanded following the nation's entry into World War II.  Thus, the time has really come for an ensemble made up of America's young musical elite, of which there are many.

The entire story can be found here.

But as my title would imply, what's the problem.  Well the first conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America is Valery Gergiev.  I would never state that Maestro Gergiev's credentials are nearly pristine (and I'm not being xenophobic) but really, for the first go-around, couldn't we find a native-born son (or daughter)?  I know that I could come up with a plethora of nominations.

How much would you bet me that next year they pick the Dude?

Concertus Interruptus...

The iPhone
The classical music world (at least in New York City and chronicled in the UK) is in an uproar over an incident at Tuesday evening's NY Philharmonic performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  It seems as though a patron failed to silence his iPhone alarm which continued to sound into the morendo of the work's closing measures.  The complete (more or less) story can be found here.

The story has seemed to have gone viral, evidenced by commentary from:
vs. Alan Gilbert
And believe me, many, MANY more.  It is as if someone has committed the most grievous sin against music.

One of my former students even posted a comment last evening on Facebook, "This is what happens when you mix idiots with technology and let them go to concerts..... I get unbelievably pissed off when a cell phone ruins a Northern Iowa Symphony Orchestra concert... but the New York Phil? Wow.  I feel as though there needs to be a national movement to teach people how to be respectful concertgoers."

My own commentary follows:

I have read about 45 minutes worth of commentary on this incident and, as much as I loath the beeps, burps, coughs and even crying babies (that's the worst) I think that we in the "classical" world need to get off our high horse. So many of these "conventions" (expectations of behavior) in the modern day concert are historically incorrect AND continue to turn people away from the music and ensembles that we all love. Remember that, back in Beethoven's day, symphonies were not performed straight through and applause was expected. Later in the Romantic period, applause still appeared within movements of a symphony and frequently--as in operas--complete movements were encored!

If we desire to keep (and God help us, maybe even increase) our audience, then we need to also worry about the comfort of the neophyte concert-goer. At a CSO concert, I recall a patron shouting "Bravo" following the first movement of a symphony. The guest conductor--I believe it may have been David Robertson, now of the St. Louis Symphony--did the classiest thing I've ever witnessed. He turned toward the patron and said "thank you." A great way to turn a potentially uncomfortable situation into a pleasant moment. I can only imagine how differently the principal conductor (Barenboim at the time) would have reacted.

At one commentator that I've read stated, "If you want a perfectly quiet performance, buy a recording and sit in your living room. As for me, I prefer (a house full of) living, breathing and only occasionally noisy people with whom I and my ensemble can share this music we love so well.  

So there is my two cents worth.  I am certain that I am in the minority.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Burying NY City Opera

As if the company--the "people's opera--were not in enough financial trouble--slicing the season to four shows and moving out of its home at Lincoln Center--the NY City Opera may have hastened its spiraling death march.  Actions from negotiators from management and union musicians has resulted in the former's decision to lock out members of the chorus (who were slated to begin rehearsals today.)  The orchestra is not scheduled to begin rehearsals until February 1.

It is seeming more and more ominous that each passing day introduces yet another tear in the fragile fabric holding together this once-great (truly) institution.  An extremely large number of today's superstars got their start at City Opera, which was also the company that took risks with underperformed masterworks as well as freshly-minted operas.

The complete story is found here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Where's the new music?

I have written many times now about the dearth of contemporary music from American orchestras, large and small.  Zachary Woolfe weighed in yesterday in the NY Times, pointing a long deserved finger at the New York Philharmonic (see the entire article here).  This season the orchestra is offering eight works by living composers, only two of which are conducted by guests on the podium.

And yet, when questioned about the presentation of contemporary music, after announcing that he did not feel a responsibility to play music of our time, Music Director Alan Gilbert stated, “I do feel that we have a responsibility to play new music,” he added, “and I feel personally responsible to create an enthusiastic, energized atmosphere around the subject of composition. But I was also not being disingenuous. I don’t start out when I’m making programs thinking: ‘All right, let’s get a lot of contemporary music into the season. Let’s make sure we do a certain amount of music by American composers or New York composers.’ We’re not going for quotas or that kind of thing.”

In his response, Mr. Woolfe states, "But these “quotas” are straw men. No one advocates precise allotments of contemporary music. (Maybe people should.) All we want is an orchestra that is genuinely engaged in its city and culture. A sustained, all-out dedication to new music is a necessity to keep the Philharmonic from becoming an exercise in nostalgia. It should be the central part of the orchestra’s mission, but it is an area conspicuously underserved this season."

One must question whether or not another performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony is an appropriate choice to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 disaster.  Would a commission been better?  I suppose it depends on the work, but surely it should have been considered.

For a long time, the San Francisco Symphony has engaged in numerous performances of the music of our time.  The LA Phil (under "The Dude") is also moving in that direction.  It seems unfortunate that significant performances of contemporary music are in large part limited to you western coast.  The remainder of our country deserves more and better...