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: Fa├žade 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.