Monday, February 8, 2010

go native

Should orchestras make an effort to feature new music from their home cities? Nico seems to think so, in a review of the New York Phil on tour:

But in the back of my head something is screaming: more new music, more American music, more music by New Yorkers. Get that Haydn off of the stage and do a new American piece for chamber orchestra (Note: nothing’s wrong with Haydn. It’s just dopey to play on a tour and, like, yes, the trio from the minuet is hot shit and shows off the horns’ high notes, but it’s still just dopey). Do the Reich Duet for Two Violins! Commission something! Don’t do Egmont; do Short Ride in a Fast Machine. You already have one of the synthesizers for the Wound-Dresser! And all the percussion from the Berg! I know that I’m always going to back-seat program for the Phil, but I’ve said it before and I will continue saying it until I die: I want my hometown orchestra to be my home team. I want to see the season and scream, “I love my life and I love living in New York.” I don’t want to open up the LA season brochure and start looking into rental properties in Rancho Cucamonga just so I can hear Tehillim.

I applaud Alan Gilbert for programming that integrates new music with the classics, and taking on tour an eclectic-but-smart program of Haydn, Schubert, Adams, and Berg (and ending with Berg!). The brunt of his new music programming this season has revolved around Magnus Lindberg, a distinctly European composer, and integrating his music with related European masterpieces---pairing Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto with Sibelius's Second, for example. But Gilbert has programmed Adams, and he is premiering a new Christopher Rouse piece this weekend. So what's the problem?

The integration of new music into regular gramming is difficult business. Gilbert, for one, is conducting the Scandinavian music he is familiar with from his work with the Royal Stockholm Orchestra. He definitely knows Adams, and conducted Doctor Atomic when it came to the Met last year. Should there be a bigger American, and American new-music presence at the New York Phil? Or even more specific---a New York new music presence? This actually raises a larger question, with both practical and artistic implications: Does nationality matter in contemporary (classical) music?

Let's take Levine's tenure at the BSO, for example. The new music he has championed has been mostly American, but of the distinctly post-European formalist kind (I hesitate to use the word Uptown): Carter, Harbison, Gunther Schuller, Babbitt, Wuorinen. Although these composers all work in very different idioms, it is possible to lump them together in one kind of stylistic, if not aesthetic, group. And it is very easy to think of Levine, principally, as a conductor of European music: these are composers who, even when working in distinctly American idioms (like Schuller's and Harbison's integration of jazz) give off a kind of European smell.

When we ask for music from a specific place, are we implying a specific style? Nico asks for New York music, and for more minimalist and post-minimalist music. He wants his home team to play the music he likes, and the stuff that should be heard more often in New York, especially since Levine's fare is frequently programmed by the Met Orchestra in their Carnegie appearances. New York can imply both Reich and Carter, and you can't really argue that one is more American than the other (Sarah Palin, I imagine, would consider neither to be true Americans). But when programming specifically European music, like Lindberg, there is an issue: this is music that can already be heard quite frequently across the Atlantic.

Should the orchestra be a home team? Since nationality no longer implies a specific compositional style, as it did even only fifty years ago, it wouldn't be a bad thing to root for the Americans. If Gilbert decided to program exclusively New York new music, we could get a fair balance of thorny (and I use that word with tongue firmly in cheek) serialism and not-so-thorny minimalism, among hundreds of other musical styles. I would love to see a New York version of the L.A. Phil's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival. So yes, I will root for the home team.

Chicago addendum: I just realized that this necessarily apply to Chicago, which has a much smaller circle of composers. But I would love to see Muti conducting some music by Chicago-based composers, besides Mason Bates who is apparently moving here.

1 comment:

  1. What, pray tell, does Sarah Palin have to do with programming at the NY Philharmonic? Of what relevance is your comment to your larger point, other than to establish that, yes, you are politically and moral on the "right side" of history? You want to write politics, write politics. Now, I admit that music is sometimes enmeshed in matters of political controversy, but programming at the NY Philharmonic isn't one of those times. In the future, may I suggest that before you post such off-putting tripe - the observation is speculative and, even worse, fatuous in the extreme - you take a deep breath and then hit the delete button. Your conservative readers will thank you for it, and your liberal readers won't be missing anything they don't already presume.