January 09, 2008
Continuing discussion & comments from a climate of fear
I confess to being a bit perplexed by the comment that “the new music community tucks itself away like church mice!” I certainly don’t mean to discount the problems that new music and those who create and perform it face in our consumer culture, but for a counter-view, have a look at the 2008 season calendar of Carnegie Hall America’s “flagship” concert hall – and an institution that until not so long ago was more or less a bastion of musical conservatism.
This season’s programming features quite a stunning array of performances of works both contemporary and “Modern.” Not only are many major living figures (Thomas Ades, John Adams, Magnus Lindberg, Pierre Boulez, Fredric Rzewski, Philip Glass, Steve Reich) well represented (in some cases multiple times) but there are also healthy doses of deceased “Modern” masters (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Messaien, among others) and a substantial list of composers both American and foreign whose names in some cases are increasingly familiar on the American scene, in other cases whose names are entirely unknown or just beginning to be known. Most exciting to me is seeing Carnegie prominently featuring groups like “Alarm Will Sound”, “Eighth Blackbird” (among others) who devote themselves exclusively to the performance of new music. Many of the world-renowned orchestras being presented by or visiting Carnegie are performing a major new work, rather than a token “curtain-raiser”, or no new music at all, as was so often the case just two decades (or less) ago.
I find Kubilay Uner’s comments exceptionally articulate and immensely interesting, but would nonetheless say that I find Mr. Adams’ assessment of Beethoven’s work to be right on the money.
If one accepts the premise (and it’s not clear to me that this is what Mr. Uner is arguing, so I’m happy to be corrected) that there is in fact no meaningful or useful standard of true greatness or enduring value in music, or for that matter in any art form, and/or that discussions of artistic merit can or should be reduced to “nothing but a series of practical questions and challenges faced by the practitioners of an art and a craft, to be addressed on a case-by-case basis” then I suppose one can dismiss Adams’ (or their imputed underlying assumptions) remarks out of hand as “bunk.”
However, I think Mr. Uner mistakenly may be misreading Adams’ remarks to Kevin’s students as “a credo to these mythical notions of music’s 1. unquestioned historical continuity, 2. elusive ideal state and 3. inherent absolute and unchanging value.” Adams is one of the last composers I’d think of as “chasing some elusive illusion of the eternal importance of [his, or anyone else’s] own musical actions.”
I don’t see the necessity of drawing such a conclusion from a statement about the power of Beethoven’s music that jives with the experience of millions of musicians and music-lovers around the world not just today, but consistently over a period of two centuries.
My own evolution as a musician was for the most part outside “academic concert music indoctrination,” if I’m understanding the implications of that phrase correctly.
Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies comfortably shared space on my family’s record shelves with Dixieland, Pete Seeger and music from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. As a kid growing up in LA, I spent as many nights at the Ash Grove hearing the legendary bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee or bluegrass masters Doc and Merle Watson; or at the Troubadour hearing any number of soon-to-be legendary singer/songwriters, as I did at the LA Philharmonic. I was as thrilled to hear Joni Mitchell at Royce Hall as I was hearing Rudolf Serkin play the Beethoven “Hammerklavier” in the same hall, or following the score in awe as his son Peter played the complete “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus” of Messiaen from memory (what an unforgettable, life-altering night that was!)....
....and I vividly remember in the late 60’s hearing the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Royce (my first experience of hearing a great European orchestra live) under a forty-year-old Bernard Haitink being booed after opening the concert with the “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” of Stravinsky (who was still alive and composing!) and the frisson of seeing Haitink defiantly brandishing the score at the audience afterwards. (All was forgiven, of course, when they finished the Brahms D major Symphony on the 2nd half.) Times have changed.
I grew up playing rock’n‘roll, blues, folk music as well as classical music. I attended the San Francisco Conservatory in the early 70’s, when it could fairly have been described as being almost an “anti-conservatory.” Students were surrounded by experimental new music (John Adams was in fact the conductor of the Conservatory New Music Ensemble, of which I was a part), electronic music, world music, early music: in fact the dominant (no pun intended) paradigm was anything but academic or doctrinaire. My first participation in a student concert included playing the Brahms 2-Piano Sonata on the first half, and playing guitar and keyboard in a band with fellow students on the 2nd half.
At some point, not because I was indoctrinated by anyone, but rather because my heart and soul were simply drawn in that direction, I found that the music to which I wanted to devote my artistic life was that of the classical tradition. So, I guess I have no problem saying with a straight face (or at least with a smile) that I agree whole-heartedly with John Adams that “perhaps more powerfully than any other music in history…Beethoven’s grabs the audience and doesn’t let it go, it sets up expectations and delivers in ultra-satisfying ways.”
I think that very few composers in history have matched Beethoven (and certainly none that I know of has surpassed him) in terms of his enduring and overwhelming power to reach and move audiences of every stripe.
I have witnessed this while playing the Beethoven piano concerti with our beloved LACO for halls full of kids who come from ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds that dictate that they have never been and most likely never will be indoctrinated, academically or otherwise, about concert music.
There are, I would think, any number of musicians and music-lovers who have no connection with or experience of “academic concert music indoctrination” who would find nothing bloated or grossly oversimplified about Adams’ statement about Beethoven, or the assumptions that allegedly underlie it. (I do, however, take the leap that Adams is talking about the history of Western music, and that he was assuming that his audience would do the same….)
But again, for what it’s worth, nothing Adams is reported to have said suggests to me that he in fact is operating on the underlying assumptions being imputed to him in the previous post.
It occurred to me while mulling this that perhaps it might be useful to look at these questions from the standpoint of another art form. The reason that there are Shakespeare festivals by the hundreds all over the the English-speaking world that continue to attract hundreds of thousands of theatre-lovers; the reason that plays like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Othello” are performed and studied year after year and decade after decade is that, to be plain, no one has ever written greater plays, nor has any single author had such a profound impact on so many people. In comparison with the total number of plays written in the last five centuries, the number of works by other playwrights that can really be considered as being in the same league in terms of their enduring power to move and delight and transform and provoke us is relatively (!) small.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t other great playwrights, nor that that there aren’t myriads of other fine works of theatre of all sorts (from street theatre to – every once in a while – Broadway musicals) and with all sorts of functions and intentions that are eminently worthy of our attention. But if anyone has ever surpassed Shakespeare in terms of what I can only feebly describe as sheer all-around greatness, I’m not aware of it. (I suppose, by the way, that if I were forced to define greatness, I might have to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s memorable dictum about obscenity – “I know it when I see [or hear] it”)
And I think the same thing could be said of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
If you strip away all the unhealthy mythologizing and politicization and the thousands of gallons of ink spilled about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, you are still left with an indescribable and almost inexplicable miracle, a wonder of the world that in its way is equal to Niagara Falls or a giant Sequoia. However, I don’t believe that one has to jump from that statement to the notion that the 5th Symphony has “inherent absolute and unchanging value,” i.e. for every person in every culture in every time. No one is obliged to be awed by a giant Sequoia tree, but its uniqueness can hardly be questioned.
On a slightly different but related note: I think, frankly, that one of the biggest problems dealing with Beethoven is the fact that orchestras can (and sometimes do) play this music in their sleep. Earlier this season, I conducted both the 5th and 7th Symphonies in successive programs with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Some of my colleagues in the orchestra confessed to me that they (understandably) approached those performances with a feeling of “not THIS again!”
But when we finished rehearsing the 5th I felt moved to say, “You know, there are very good reasons why we play this piece as often as we do.” And some of those same musicians who may have felt resignation (or worse) when they saw it on the schedule ended the week feeling exhilarated and inspired. One violinist, almost apologetically, came up to me and said: “You know, I have to admit, this is actually still my favorite symphony.” Which, coming from someone who has played thousands of hours of symphonic music, is no insignificant statement.
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