Monday, May 24, 2010

Dudamel in New York: The new versus the old

Gustavo Dudamel (see my earlier blog entry) made his first appearance in New York's Avery Fisher Hall last week as the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last Thursday. A review of this event by Anthony Tommasini, again in the New York Times, noted aspects of the performance that the critic found to be the triumphal, as well as what he found to be the conductor's shortcomings:

"Mr. Dudamel is a phenomenally gifted musician with the potential to change the public perception of what an American orchestra should be. The ovation was ecstatic, and a group of patriotic fans in the top balcony waved a large Venezuelan flag. In response, he conducted an encore, the waltz from Bernstein’s 'Divertimento.'

"But Mr. Dudamel has to tend to the technical maintenance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and may need to spend more time, as the Tchaikovsky performance suggested, immersing himself in the repertory."

A survey of other reviews of the Philharmonic's performances around the country in Dudamel's inaugural year as Music Director reflects both aspects of Tommasini's critique, as summarized in excellent fashion in Tom Huisenga's report on NPR: "Cut Him Some Slack: Dudamel's Hype Turns To Drubbing." (The report also includes a link a YouTube video clip of Dudamel in conducting his inaugural concert in his term as the Music Director of the Philharmonic.) In his case, as in that of 40 year old Alan Gilbert , the new Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (see previous blog entry), there are the eternal tensions between youth and enthusiasm and energy, and age and experience, and in the needs of a cultural organization to maintain its established clientele at the same time as seeking new audiences.

Orpheus' Almanac: 24 May - PART 2 - The New York Philharmonic

"Orchestra's Opera Gamble" reads the headline from The New York Times (actually, yesterday's Sunday edition, again via today's Google News) of the review by critic Daniel J. Wakin,who asks with disbelief:

"A contemporary surrealist opera at the New York Philharmonic?

"About the end of the world?

"On Memorial Day weekend?

"What are they thinking over there at Avery Fisher Hall?"

Almost all musical programming organizations, in the past as well as today (symphony orchestras included), have to find the proper balance to strike between "old" and "new" music.

The latter term has a distinct connotation in the New York music scene in particular, but for our purposes it here it means only that--music that is new, and presumably has some characteristic differing from "old" music. See the Wikipedia article on Contemporary Music for a somewhat extended discussion of new music in the broader sense--including a section on "world music".

The history of musical development has an endless sequence of developments in which revolutionary music eventually becomes an accepted part of the canon ("a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works ", which in turn is assaulted by compositions with new approaches which are usually seen as being outrageous by the mainstream.

To return to our review of the New York Philharmonic, Waken explains that "The Philharmonic is presenting the New York premiere production of the earthily absurdist opera 'Le Grand Macabre' by Gy├Ârgy Ligeti [1923 – 2006], first performed in 1978, on [the coming] Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings [of the Memorial Day weekend}. It is a risky gambit for the orchestra and its new music director, Alan Gilbert, who have invested a lot of resources and hopes in the production. They are framing the performances as the signature event of Mr. Gilbert’s first season and a harbinger of things to come."

Wakin goes on to describe the economic implications of the unconventional programming strategy, which he says causes Gilbert no great concern: “'I feel like there’s a risky element, which I’m enjoying,'” [Gilbert] said. Preparations for the work have galvanized the orchestra’s staff and created a shared sense of purpose, he said, and while subscribers have generally shunned the performances, Mr. Gilbert said he expected that 'Le Grand Macabre' would draw many newcomers to Avery Fisher Hall."

The issues raised in such a venture remind me of my childhood visits to the Denver Symphony Orchestra, when my father, who like many of the New York Philharmonic's subscribers, had conservative musical tastes, and was sometimes indignant at the very occasional "new" (but not necessarily avante-garde) composition. He used to say, with a mischievous smile, that his idea of the perfect concert piece was "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage", by Felix Mendelssohn, which he much preferred to Igor Stravinsky's riot-causing Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, premiered in Paris 1913), which, thanks to my brother Barnard's introducing me to this surging masterpiece, became the defining classical music of my childhood--the ideal soundtrack to the darkling yet visionary science-fiction writings that were my literary obsession of the time.

As for Gilbert and his programming philosophy for the Philharmonic, change always has its detractors, is evident in a somewhat related music story which involves the moderate controversy that has arisen from the appointment of 29 year old Gustavo Dudamel as the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--see the following entry (as well as my earlier blog entry on Dudamel and Il Sistema).

Orpheus' Almanac: 24 May - PART 1 - Afghanistan and Iraq

Today I am exploring a new feature for VOAWorldMusic--a musical "almanac" (for want of a better word) based on a variety of information regarding music in the world, ranging from media features encountered in the course of the day to statistics, such as events, births, and deaths on this particular day in history.

And for the moment I'm titling it "Orpheus' Almanac", in reference to the legendary poet-musician among the Greeks, a figure appearing in many dramatic representations, from early Greek poetry to the 1959 Brazilian film, Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus. Orpheus' name itself is evocative of music, and so used here in honor of the irrepressible human impulse to musicality. . . .

[I am now writing after the above introduction, and at the end of the first day's survey. Given the volume of writing generated by this effort, I'll break this experiment up into three pieces, and then set it aside for the time being as being too large in scope to be a regular feature of this blog. The text below is a continuation of the original piece.]

I decide top begin my survey of material for this "alamanac" entry, I consult Google News today, and select the third story on "music" (at the time I accessed it) as most appropriate for "world music". The piece is titled "Feel-good stories about music in Iraq, Afghanistan", by the Baltimore Sun's classical music critic, Tim Smith (his bio is on this blog page).

He writes first about The Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul "where young people are eagerly learning instruments, Western ones and those from the region. Just a decade ago, in the neo-medieval days of the Taliban, instrumental music was banned entirely, and only songs of worship or praise to the Taliban were officially permitted."

Coincidentally, I had last week received an e-mail from Samir Chatterjee, a leading New York- based tabla master (see, with a link to a Wall Street Journal story by Lara Pellegrinelli on 21 March, entitled "An Upbeat Afghan Story", also about the Institute, and noting Samir's involvement:

"Renowned tabla player Samir Chatterjee, a native of Calcutta, India, who lives in New Jersey, has been leading efforts to establish the Department of Afghan Traditional Music; Hindustani musicians from northern India introduced classical music to the Afghan court in the 1860s, making the two traditions closely related.

"On his trips to Kabul, Mr. Chatterjee stays in a guest house under the watchful eyes of armed security. He travels to and from his drumming classes by car; each day brings a different driver and a different serpentine route. Mr. Chatterjee made one special road trip last year to recruit faculty, which involved tracking down musicians in the mountain caves of Jalalabad—while he was held at gunpoint, he mentions casually. 'I'm absolutely not a romantic,' he says. 'I try to be careful. At the same time, what is this life worth if I spend it in my living room?'"

I know from personal experience how much Indian musicians enjoyed playing at the court of the King of Afghanistan in the period prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. Both the late Ustad Vilayat Khan, the eminent sitar master, and his younger brother, Ustad Imrat Khan (as well as numerous other musicians I knew less well) spoke with the greatest nostalgia of performing for King Zahir Shah. And even today in Washington, the members of the Afghan diaspora (some of whom, along with immigrants from neighboring Pakistan, hold a virtual monopoly on the Washington Flyer taxi service from Dulles Airport) regularly host concerts by visiting Indian classical artists of repute.

I'll be sharing these stories with my colleagues in VOA's Dari and Pashto Services, in the hope that they'll be able to do further coverage. . . .

Back to Tim Smith's article in the Sun: "Meanwhile, in Iraq, [Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner], a 13-year-old pianist from California, son of an official from a US investment firm working in Baghdad, debuted over the weekend with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, playing [George] Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." As the young Julliard School graduate told the AP, "Several mistakes from my country have been made in terms of invasion and occupation. But me being here today is one way to show the U.S. has a lot of wonderful things to offer." You can see raw AP footage of the concert here on YouTube.

Smith's conclusion: "Music doesn't win wars or quell conflicts, but it sure can help remind us of the bonds we share as human beings, and it just might make a difference in how we treat each other. That, at least, is something worth hoping for in Afghanistan, Iraq and everywhere." (See the questions asked in my 1 May manifesto. . . .)

. . . . . To be continued

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Musical Manifesto for May First

Musicians and music lovers of the world, unite!

There is no question that music is one of the unifying forces in human society, a force which breaks down barriers and establishes avenues of communication, understanding, and love among the diverse branches of the human species.

And on this day (for me the beginning of a new musical year), I like to ask:

What is music? What is its role in our lives? Why is it so inseparable from the most basic human experiences?

The current state of music in the world is that literally millions of people--sometimes as themselves, sometimes forming groups with individuals of similar convictions, sometimes aspiring to national stature, sometimes challenging and crossing an incredible complex of difficult, even deadly, boundaries—are committing their efforts to musical offerings, statements, masterpieces, or even failures, from no less a primal source than their very souls, and their deepest and most sacred dreams and hopes of simply connecting with other beings, with the prospect of sharing the magic of music with those who care to—or have the opportunity to—or are (by those around them) forced to—listen . . . .

Music is the other language of today’s media—sometimes called the lingua-franca of this world, of human hearts and throats and tongues, and if it is not too much to wish for, of the souls of our fellow inhabitants of this complex, constantly changing, and constantly challenging planet (to our immediate knowledge, and infinite loneliness: the only proof-positive of the presence of life within the vastness of the perceivable universe. . . . )

So let us sing, let us play the music of our hands and voices and hearts; let us celebrate the myriad musics of our pluralistic world, to accompany the ultimate poetry and drama and philosophy of this miraculous—and yet gloriously ordinary—existence we share together today, and we hope, tomorrow.

When we think about music, many questions arise:

Why, since the dawn of human existence, have we been moved to sing, or to create musical instruments, however primitive, and play them?

Similarly, why has song, for millennia, been so fundamental an expression of the human spirit?

Why do humans sing when alone, as in tending herds of sheep, or together in vast choruses in towering cathedrals?

What joy, what fulfillment, is achieved by creating some new piece of music?

What reward is to be found in playing the music created by someone else?

Why are lullabies almost universal among human societies?

Why are gramophone records, or 45s, or long-playing records, or cassettes, or CDs, or now Mp3s such important cultural artifacts collected by millions with such devotion and often at considerable expense?

Why are the musical aspects of radio and television so fundamental to our culture?

Why is the music industry so huge?

Why is music used as a mobilizing force for religion, for sports competition, for war?

Why is music so important for dancing, or other bodily expressions?

Why is some music considered profane or even erotic, and other music held to be sacred?

Why is music used as enhancement for plays, for films, or for advertisements?

Why is music sometimes used as an element of torture?

Why can music provoke such strong feelings, either negative or positive, to send people dancing and celebrating in the streets, or to threaten or even kill those who propagate music, either by performing it or by being merchants of music?

Why does every nation have a national anthem?

Why does virtually ever religion have some sort of liturgy, or hymns, to awaken and enhance religious feelings, whether of humility, or celebration, or joy?

Why can music be divisive, in separating generations, social groups, or national entities?

Why can a bugle, or drums, motivate soldiers to fight and kill?

Why is song, or at least music, so intricately intertwined with expressions of love?

Why do hymns and songs assist in comforting in times of grief and loss?

Why can music constitute an expression of absolute, transcendent joy?

Why does some music make us laugh, some make us weep?

Why can the cacophony, or sheer boredom, of one musical expression as perceived by one individual or group, express the quintessential nature of another individual or cultural or national expression for which it is a source of pleasure, inspiration, or succor?

Why are new avenues of musical expression and innovation constantly sought?

Then again, why are the newest musical creations and styles able to generate extreme hostility, even violence, as well as an exultant sense of discovery and liberation?

Why is it that music is able to bring people together in extraordinary displays of unity and common purpose, even across lines and divisions that otherwise promote violence and even slaughter?

Why are some simple sounds pleasing to some, and anathema to others.

Why is there such an extraordinary diversity of musics in the myriad cultures of the world?

How can one song or collection of songs mobilize an entire social movement, or express and comfort the aspirations and despairs of an entire generation, or a dissonant splinter group?

Why is song, and not just words, used to tell the history, sometimes in entire epics, of a tribal group that exists without the benefit of literacy?

Why can music bring such an intense, even mystical, personal experience, associated as it is with the process of memory and nostalgia?

How does human music relate to the unchallengeable musicality of bird song, or the songs of whales?

Why do the songs of insects and other creatures have, to the human ear, musical qualities?

What is the relationship of music to science and mathematics—as in the Music of the Spheres, or the Pythagorean considerations of music.

Brian Q. Silver
07.18.08, rev. 05.01.10

* * * * * * *

Once again, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on any of these matters, and continuing to share the rich experience of music with you.