Thursday, August 30, 2007

d'Indy before bed

Vincent d'Indy is a composer one doesn't often hear from, and for once I'm not lamenting this arrangement. His music never seemed particularly exciting or moving, and so it was an unexpected occurrence yesterday night that I found myself listening intently to his string quartets. (Or more specifically, his first last night, the second right now).

They're not something you can just pick up and listen to, they don't really have the power to draw you into the music as do the major French quartets: Debussy and Ravel, nor do they have the immediate accessability and relatability of Haydn, Mozart, or Mendelssohn: they're too strangely complicated. I'm not sure whether it's the music itself or the performance by the Kodály Quartet, but what I hear strikes me as very methodical, yet neither plodding nor self-concerned. The harmonies occasionally remind me of Janáček, particularly in the viola line, and the thematic treatment can be very subtle: the material can be fragmented, and it's hard to spot where a previous motif has been inverted or transposed and placed in the harmony. But if you've got a good musical memory, these quartets can be very rewarding. Oh, and they really do have some great moments.

I'm not saying go out, get a recording, and listen immediately. You will likely be disappointed. I skip over these quartets all the time, because usually I find them boring. It's odd, but if my own emotion doesn't match the music a priori, the d'Indy quartets are a chore to listen to; if, on the other hand, I'm in the right state of mind, it seems I find them most enjoyable. For me, these quartets are just perfect for late-night listening, or a hot room with dry, still air. Regardless of where and when I best enjoy d'Indy's first and second string quartets, you can be sure that I'll put each of them on the airwaves at some point.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's Always Copland

and Gershwin, as though George Antheil, Quincy Porter, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, and Randall Thompson are footnotes to the inevitable progression of 20th century American music. If it weren't for the occasional broadcast of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings we might be confused into believing Copland and Gershwin to be the only composers America produced before 1938.

I bring this up because it is only three months from the centennial of Elliott Carter, whose music would largely have remained unknown except that he's lived so long. And the music to which we're getting exposed, only his most recent, isn't wonderful: The older Carter gets the more unlistenably atonal his pieces become. So first-time listeners will come away from concerts (what few there are) with the idea that Carter sounds something a lot like Babbitt, which for much of his output, simply isn't true.

In point of fact, much of Elliott Carter's music sounds quite American. Take for instance his song The Rose Family or 3 Poems by Robert Frost. Not to mention the depth of the music: his Piano Sonata from 1946 has got a lot more going on than Retrouvailles from fifty years later, and the latter could easily pass for a piece by Anton Webern.

To put it succinctly: For the sake of posterity, and his reputation as a distinctly American composer, it's more fair to perform Carter's earlier works, which sound American, rather than his more recent works, which don't sound like particularly anything. How exciting would it be for instance, if the Boston Ballet decided on a performance of Carter's The Minotaur, or if excerpts were performed by the New York Philharmonic?

Monday, August 27, 2007

We don't like British music

It's a fact. Glancing over the upcoming seasons of the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic, I see only two substantial British works: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Bolcom's 8th Symphony [And to even better prove my point, Bolcom is American! Not what I was thinking the night I wrote this...]; the latter is begrudgingly played as a 125th-anniversary commission, and likely will not be played again. Last year, we were lucky to hear some Vaughan-Williams (there was a singular Walton: Façade for two orators and ensemble, tucked away at Jordan Hall). Next year, if we're lucky, someone will think Well, we haven't played any Britten for a few years and slot him in somewhere (probably the interludes from Peter Grimes).

Maddeningly, we insist on programming the same composers: Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Strauss, Berlioz. It's not that we simply program them, they certainly deserve it, but the music directors always choose the most massive pieces: works that are an hour to hour-and-a-half long: Mahler's 9th, Tchaikovsky's 6th, Bruckner's 8th... However powerful these pieces are, throwing them in more than a few concerts a season is just plain lazy. In the same time it takes to perform the Shostakovich 4th, you could have performed Bax's November Woods, Simpson's Nielsen variations, and Bridge's The Sea, all pieces very much deserving of performance.

While the music selected is far from boring, its selection is unimaginative and stale. If you get tickets for Mahler's 9th, you know exactly what you're in for. And unless a piece isn't a commission or a piece by a hot new composer, chances are it's by one of the standard greats.The concert format, too, is tired. Big concerto, then a big symphony. Sometimes, they'll switch it up and put the symphony first. It's as if modern music directors have abandoned both breadth and scope in their programming: same composers, same kinds of pieces. They do this out of fear, I think, that if they try something new their audience might not show up. And so you get boring seasons where it's obvious that music directors are trying to balance the "contemporary music" audience with the "frightened by anything I don't know" audience (which I'll talk about in a moment).

I think this drives more people away than it entices. For example, in January, the BSO is performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a performance I won't go to. Why? Because I have six recordings of Pictures, and a huge number of people have at least one. I've seen it performed eight times, played it myself thrice. We've heard it, we know we like it, and we have it. Now what did they pair it up with? None other than Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks by Strauss. More big pieces. I've got recordings of these too, thanks; and while the live performance enhances the experience, it's not nearly as exciting as experiencing the piece for the first time. Or at least, hearing it for the second or third time, rather than the twenty-fifth.

Which brings me to the "frightened by anything I don't know" audience. This is a complete misnomer, they're actually afraid of cerebral "squeaky-gate" music (and rightly so). It's very likely that they were quite adventuresome in the past, but went to a concert with, say, Kaija Saariaho's Notes on Light, and got burned (just like me when I went). And because most of the non-standard music turns out to be commissions from hot composers who may not be so hot in fifty years (contemporary Anton Arenskys, like Saariaho), this converts a large number of tentative concert-goers, while the adventuresome keep showing up regardless.

The solution, then, is simple. Do better programming non-standard works. Program the great works of the lesser-known. Throw in a Berwald instead of a Mozart, Stenhammar rather than Sibelius. Build confidence, introduce audiences to great music they probably haven't heard, and they'll reward you by coming back.

However, it occurs to me that symphonies make their money not from concert-goers, but from donors. And these donors are old people with lots of money trying to buy culture points by donating. And they all like Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler; and so the symphony performs Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. And until the donors start liking variety, the symphony is going to keep performing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dutoit comes to Boston

From February sixth through the twelfth, Charles Dutoit will lead the BSO in performances of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto (with Viviane Hagner, Violin), Martin's Petite symphonie concertante, and the Organ Symphony of Camille Saent-Saëns. Dutoit, despite his acclaimed recordings of Berlioz and Honegger, remains, really, an unknown conductor here in the States, where the names Michael Tilson Thomas, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and James Levine seem absolutely revered. Not that these aren't fine conductors, simply that Dutoit is finer still, which is why I'm excited to see this performance come February. That, and I've never heard Symphony Hall's organ in action.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I like novelty

One of the great benefits of working at a radio station - even a college radio station - is access to its library. Ours is perhaps the best of any college radio station, and likely beats out a number of commercial classical stations. As an exercise today, I thumbed through the Harvard Dictionary of Music and in a short time had found a handful of composers whose works I knew from my work here at the station, but who were unfairly neglected in the dictionary.

I maintain that the greatest benefit of working here is our strict programming requirment, a programming strikingly different than anything I've come across anywhere: variety. Granted, this probably displeases more people than it entices: I don't expect the audience excited by Berwald's Sinfonie Singuliere to be similarly entranced by Babbit's Sextets (for violin and piano); but it does force those of us programming or broadcasting to at least be familiar with both.

I sit, now, in the station, listening to our broadcast of Willhelm Stenhammar's first Piano Concerto, and know that when I'd first joined - not more than 17 months ago - I'd never have found any pleasure in this piece. Not because I'd've genuinely disliked it, but because I couldn't've admitted to myself that I did. I was a chamber music guy, and a modern music guy, and everything else I had to deem trivial and old-fashioned and boring.

This is the problem with such a large proportion of CM audiences : There's no sense of adventure, of exploration. People stick to what they know and pooh-pooh everything else, partly to justify their musical tastes, and partly to avoid exploring other areas. This is why I love our audience so much. Above all, they're music fans who haven't locked themselves into one particular period, or genre. And that, ultimately, is what our members strive to be.

Our programming is of the highest benefit to our members because, within a few brief years, it forcibly develops even the most narrow of musical tastes into a profound interest in all serious music, and a wealth of knowledge to back it up. I hope that at least some of our listeners have shared this kind of development.