Monday, May 24, 2010

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).

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