Thursday, February 7, 2008

Where is the path?

Two things for Thursday. The first is that I am almost through Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise". I will give a full report when finished, but for now I will share that I think it is a breathtaking accomplishment, incredibly well researched and written. The second is an article forwarded to me by a wonder music lover in Baltimore. It comes from the Urbanite magazine and speaks to the situation in American orchestras, particularly large-sized orchestras in mid-sized cities. Here the writer uses the Baltimore Symphony as the example, but as much could be said for Cleveland, San Francisco, and any number of American cities. What makes Baltimore unique, and perhaps the perfect example to use, is the appointment of Marin Alsop and its consequences, in a number of both good, bad, and unknown ways. That said, I post it here because I find it a powerful message for the state of arts in general in the United States, and most particularly opera (ie. putting an opera on a movie screen doesn't make it sustainably interesting if the opera on the movie screen is the same old retrospective production or a new production that only succeeds at cheapening the work). I reprint the whole thing here because I think it is very worth reading:

Can the BSO sell classical music without selling it short?

A little after 8 p.m. one night last November in Meyerhoff Hall, just when a conductor usually gives the downbeat that tells an orchestra to begin, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop signaled instead for composer Aaron Jay Kernis to walk out on stage. Two Kernis pieces, “Lament and Prayer” and “Newly Drawn Sky,” filled the first half of a program that concluded with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and Alsop, now in the first season of her BSO tenure, engaged Kernis in a chat before the performance. The nostalgic rapture of “Newly Drawn Sky,” the audience learned, was inspired by memories of the changing colors at dusk on a summer day Kernis and his wife spent at the beach with their newly born twins.

When the orchestra finished, Kernis was summoned to the stage by the kind of standing ovation that Beethoven might have received after a performance of the “Pastoral.” But Kernis’ reception was also a tribute to Alsop—and for more than her passionate and exciting take on the two pieces. Her conversation with Kernis had made it possible for 21st century listeners to respond enthusiastically to demanding and unfamiliar contemporary works—the sort of music today’s audiences are not supposed to like. And she had enabled a living composer to achieve what Beethoven himself, in his inscription to his Missa Solemnis, called the primary purpose of music: “To speak from the heart to the heart.”

If the concert was a powerful demonstration of how conductor and orchestra can create a shared experience, it also raised questions and caveats about Alsop and the BSO’s future together. Was the ovation a response to Kernis’ music, or to Alsop’s deft salesmanship? After all, when Beethoven wrote his words about the power of music to communicate from the heart to the heart, he was not thinking about the power of a charismatic intermediary to insert herself between the composer and his listener.

Then there was Alsop’s performance of the Beethoven, which suffered from a rigidity of rhythm. Alsop often seems uncomfortable about employing rubato—the elasticity and flexibility of tempo that come from slight speeding-ups and slowing-downs, which can add interest and tension to a melodic line without distorting it. It’s often what we’re hearing when we describe a performance as “flowing,” and it’s essential to performing music from the 18th to the early 20th century. It’s also something that Alsop—not only in Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” but also in her performances of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Strauss—does not seem to understand.

What worried me more than the performance was that nearly all of the two thousand people in the audience didn’t seem to hear any such deficiencies in the “Pastoral” and responded with yet another ovation.

The ability of an audience to detect the difference between an inspired performance and one that is merely professional often depends upon having sufficiently savvy listeners. Those, however, are not the listeners about whom the BSO seems concerned; its current initiatives appear to be motivated by the belief that there simply aren’t enough of them to matter.

The BSO appointed Alsop to succeed Yuri Temirkanov as music director in 2005. She’s the first woman ever to occupy so prestigious a position at an American orchestra, a milestone that has seemed to generate more publicity for the BSO in the last few months than in all of its previous ninety-one years. But the attention isn’t all because of her: There’s enormous curiosity about the BSO’s effort to reinvent the American orchestra, an institution that has suffered from budget and leadership issues in many cities across the country. Only a handful of orchestras are rich enough to fend off the increasing deficits and apparently decreasing audiences that have threatened the BSO.

When the first American orchestras were founded in the 19th century, audiences were by no means comprised chiefly of a wealthy social elite. The New York Philharmonic’s first concert, on December 7, 1842, was before a crowd of recent German immigrants (more than 40 percent of the players were German). It was an elite audience only in the sense that they took music seriously: They knew it and appreciated it.

That model was dealt several successive blows throughout the 20th century—by recorded music, by radio, by movies, by television. At about the time the Vietnam War came to an end, precipitous declines in public school arts education helped reduce symphonic music (as well as many other live performing arts) to something like irrelevance.

This led, eventually, to a huge excess capacity in classical music- making. The thinking at the cultural front of the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s was that American orchestras weren’t musically or institutionally stable enough to compete with the Soviet Union’s state-funded arts institutions. The result was a drive to build year-round, high-level professional orchestras. In 1966, for example, the Ford Foundation gave almost $81 million in grants—with the condition that orchestras, in turn, had to raise twice that amount in matching funds.

This flood of money dramatically increased the number of concerts. Throughout the 1950s, the standard concert season was thirty weeks. In 1964, the New York Philharmonic signed a fifty-two-week contract and other orchestras followed suit: In 1970, there were six with fifty-two-week seasons; currently, there are eighteen—the BSO among them. But by the 1980s, orchestra expenses began to outstrip revenues. The number of concerts grew not to meet audience demand but to accommodate the financial needs of the players, now almost entirely dependent on their orchestras for income.

Meanwhile, audiences aged, tickets prices escalated, and the time-bomb of reduced arts education finally exploded. There is now too much classical-music “product” for the market to consume. The BSO, for example, gives three to four performances of a program per week (except in the summer months). The greatest orchestras in Europe—in much larger cities like Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London—rarely give more than two.

Beethoven’s hope to address his audience “from the heart to the heart” came from his belief in symphonic music as a force that could reconcile us to each other and to the world in which we live. By the end of the 20th century, the remorseless onslaught of popular culture had made the possibility of such a vision seem impossibly remote. It is thus not only understandable but also commendable that orchestras are trying to reach out to a generation of Americans who know little or nothing about classical music—and that Alsop and her staff are arguing for a different definition of the American orchestra than the one created in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a definition with a more populist, perhaps less elitist, bias.

In such a cultural climate, the ability to make music may not be the most important attribute of a music director. As New York Times music critic Bernard Holland wrote more than a dozen years ago, “American music directors are administrators, hirers, firers, planners, glad- handers, money-raisers, politicians and donor-strokers … [it’s] the conductor as C.E.O., professor, psychiatrist, public relations officer and [on the podium] a ballet dancer.”

Alsop moves more like a boxer than a ballerina, but that’s otherwise an accurate accounting of her bona fides. She’s a skillful media player and is good at attending to the details of artistic administration. The dissension among BSO players created when Alsop was appointed seems to have dissipated, and the praise she has received for promoting the music of Kernis and of several other important American composers is richly deserved. And, like Leonard Bernstein, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic whom she describes as a mentor, she has an uncanny ability to package her ideas intriguingly. For example, her invitation to several composers—America’s John Adams, Scotland’s James MacMillan, England’s Thomas Adès, and Austria’s H.K. Gruber, all of whom she calls “modern Beethovens"—to participate as conductors in the BSO’s first Beethoven symphony cycle since the early years of David Zinman’s music directorship has caused a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic.

The approach seems to be paying off at the gate: In contrast with Temirkanov’s last few seasons, most of Alsop’s concerts have been well-attended—frequently filling most of 2,443-seat Meyerhoff Hall and nearly all of the orchestra’s second home in Bethesda, the 1,976-seat Music Center at Strathmore. Some of that could be attributed to the BSO’s decision to lower ticket prices. Subscription packages this season make every seat available for $25—thanks to a $1 million grant from PNC Bank. The orchestra reports a 14 percent increase in the number of subscriptions purchased compared to last season, with three times the number of first-time subscribers.

But how good is the product that is being heard in those $25 seats compared to that heard in the recent past?

Comparison of the current season’s roster of guest soloists and conductors to that of any in the tenure of Zinman or Temirkanov provides a depressing answer. If engaging guest artists can be compared to shopping, in past years the orchestra’s guest roster looked as if it had been purchased in Bergdorf’s and Saks, while this season’s roster looks like it comes from Wal-Mart—proof that you often get what you pay for. A few of the soloists, while well-known, no longer play as well they did when they became celebrated; the names of some of the others are unfamiliar even to aficionados. And what will happen next season when, without underwriting for $25 seats, ticket prices return to their accustomed level?

And while many BSO innovations sound intriguing, some have proved tedious (or worse) in practice. The notion of Beethoven symphonies conducted by “modern Beethovens” is great in theory, but having to sit through a Beethoven Fourth or Seventh led with marginal competence by someone who, while perhaps a good composer, is a poor conductor is quite another thing. And letting audiences believe that such a performance can be called “a modernist perspective” on Beethoven is nothing less than a classical-music con: It’s taking advantage of people’s ignorance.

Of course, superb soloists and conductors do not guarantee filled houses—something the last years of both Zinman and Temirkanov demonstrated. It can be argued that Baltimore does not need, does not want, and cannot afford an elite orchestra with international standing like the one created in the last twenty years. And perhaps there’s no way that such an institution could survive in the present climate without cutting corners and creating strategies to broaden its appeal.

The era is long past when music directors like Chicago’s Fritz Reiner or Cleveland’s George Szell could create orchestras so good that attending their concerts became a matter of civic pride. Someone like Temirkanov—a great conductor who does not ingratiate himself with the audience or cozy up to a city’s corporate boards and richest citizens—is not likely to come our way again soon. But conductors with both enormous musical talent and popular charisma have been appealing to the public for more than a century. (Bernstein had both—and so did Zinman.) It’s possible that Alsop will grow into a better conductor and that her proselytizing efforts will result in both a broader and a more discerning audience. It’s also possible that a concept of public education that includes the arts—an idea that prevailed in this country until the 1960s—will return.

A new vision of the civic orchestra could be created. Orchestras may need more flexible goals—reducing the number of symphonic concerts, for example, and using the musicians to give more and smaller outreach concerts. Maybe Alsop will mature enough to help accomplish this transformation; maybe the task will fall to her successor.

That’s what one hopes for in the long term. In the short term, the BSO needs to engage better (if not necessarily more expensive) soloists. And it may need to extend the engagement of such great conductors as Günther Herbig, Libor Pešek, and Yan Pascal Tortelier, who can lead the orchestra in the core repertory with experience, skill, and insight that Alsop does not yet possess. Should the BSO receive another $1 million grant, it would be wise to spend it for such purposes.

One thing seems certain: However successfully the BSO packages its product this season and in seasons to come, unless that package also contains some great musical performances, the orchestra as an institution may be neither worth reinventing, nor worth listening to.

—Steve Wigler spent twenty years as the music critic of several newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. He now writes about music from his home in Baltimore.

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