Modern classical music – a response

Alex Ross wrote a strong article in the Guardian that says much of what I’ve been saying informally for ages, except that he says it better. He asks, as countless musicians, writers, presenters, and other music lovers have been asking: why are audiences so stubbornly resistant to the classical music deemed modern, even when that music is well over 100 years old?

He opens with:

A full century after Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern unleashed their harsh chords on the world, modern classical music remains an unattractive proposition for many concertgoers.

In a questionable attempt at a think piece I drafted last month (I think only the six people in my writing workshops at the Arts Journalism Institute know how questionable), I wrote:

What audiences now consider “modern” is often far from it: Schoenberg “liberated dissonance” a century ago. Distaste for dissonance has piled up ever since.

Not that there’s a whole lot of debate about the premise, but it’s nice that we agree. I like his discussion of the visual arts and literature, with examples like Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, and T.S. Eliot. Ross also makes this point:

It’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating.

Yes. I used the same example as Ross, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hundreds of New York Philharmonic subscribers turned in their tickets to avoid listening to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, but I’ll reckon that few of them would refuse to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on the basis of Ligeti’s music. Why? Is it perception, or context, or something else?

Yet, Ross points out, the NY Philharmonic’s recent performances of Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft were largely well-received – even by subscribers. (Le Grand Macabre, I should point out, was enthusiastically received by single-ticket buyers who filled the house even after subscribers turned back their tickets. In other words, it couldn’t attract the Philharmonic’s usual crowd, but it had a strong appeal to new music lovers.) According to Ross:

What made the difference was Gilbert’s gift for talking audiences through unfamiliar territory: in a mini-lecture, he mapped out the structure of the piece, demonstrated a few highlights, made jokes at his own expense, and generally gave people the idea that if they left early they’d be missing out.

I don’t entirely agree with this. Gilbert has a gift for communicating with an audience and illuminating music in small snapshots, but I’m not sure that’s the reason audiences loved Kraft. I’m sure his talk was quite helpful for some people in the house. But I think that the most important element is Gilbert’s embracing of the music and putting it before the audience without apologies. Giving people the idea that they’d be missing out? Yes. But that work starts before the audience is sitting in the hall on concert night.

In looking at organizations that are putting forth adventurous programming and project an image of vitality and excitement, I see one common thread: they’re not hiding their repertoire choices. They’re not making excuses for their programs, and they’re not trying to assure tradition-bound concertgoers that this music secretly sounds like the Beethoven they love. They’re saying that this music is important to them and that they are excited to present it. Yes, it absolutely helps to point out some musical elements to listen for, as Gilbert did with Kraft. But more important, I think, was Gilbert’s – and the orchestra’s – transparent enthusiasm for the work.

The same goes for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra under William Boughton, with its Walton project and composers-in-residence. Audience members who were initially skeptical of listening to work after work of Walton are now talking with pride about the excellent reviews given the first of three Walton recordings. Ditto with New York City Opera, which is loading its season with non-standard fare like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, three twentieth-century monodramas (by Schoenberg, John Zorn, and Morton Feldman), and New York premieres of not-so-new twentieth-century operas by Steven Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein. These companies are presenting a substantial dose of music that audiences often run away from, and they’re doing it with apparent confidence. Maybe they’re secretly quaking in their shoes. But at least they’re giving us something different – not just the repertoire but the packaging and the attitude.

I’ll take it.

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