Thursday, February 3, 2011

late night thoughts on the new york phil

Orchestral programming is my fantasy baseball. Or at least I think so, because I’m not entirely sure what fantasy baseball is. So when the New Big Three announce their seasons, I pay close attention. Whether or not the big orchestras of L.A., Chicago, and New York are the best in the country, they are currently the most newsworthy. New York and L.A. are announcing their third years with new music directors, and Chicago will soon announce its second season with Muti, assuming that everything pans out.

I hope that L.A. and Chicago bring it, because New York did not. The momentum of the past two seasons, artistically and thematically, seems to have ground almost to a halt. It seemed like Gilbert's first two seasons were just the beginning of a attempt to shift the New York Phil's programming away from the 1920s-1950s codified overture/concerto/symphony or overture/ audience-unfriendly new piece/symphony towards something grander and more befitting of the cultural heritage of Lincoln Center. But this coming season looks like conservatism masked as cutting-edge.

For starters, a list.

World Premieres: 5 (by Neikrug, Corigliano, Lindberg, Lunski, Robin-who-is-not-me), 3 on regular programming (non-CONTACT)
U.S. or New York Premieres: 2 (Ades, Jarrell), 1 on regular programming
Relatively new pieces: 10 (2 Lindberg, Gruber, Stockhausen, Schnittke, 2 Boulez, Glass, Stucky, Henze), 7 regular programming *I may have counted this wrong

In the ongoing 2010-2011 season, the total of works performed by the NY Phil by living composers is 17. Next year, including recently-deceased composers (Stockhausen, Schnittke), that number is...17.

The measure of artistic programming is not in how many new pieces your season has, but it's a start. More problematic is that Gilbert seems to be ceding any attempts to create intellectual programs which match newer music smartly with the classics. Last season we got Sibelius and Lindberg, which just works. This year, we'll have Lindberg with Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, or with Prokofiev and Bartok. These aren't clever pairings, they're concessions to the overture-concerto-symphony format. I am sick to death of potpourri programs which sandwich the new between warhorses, making everything sound worse than it actually is.

And then one of my pet peeves. The Mahler symphonies are alone! When you play Mahler 2, and Mahler 6, you have the perfect opportunity to pair them with shorter pieces. It can create terrifyingly engaging results. I'm glad to see Ades's Polaris with Mahler 9, but what about those other two programs? Yes, Mahler 6 will fill up your whole program, but we should demand more out of Gilbert's Phil than what we are getting in every other city in the world.

CONTACT! also hasn't gained any ground; if anything, it's still shifting away from the promise it offered in its first season. Not only has it remained a paltry two programs, but Gilbert has conceded one of them to David Robertson. Robertson is a brilliant conductor, but CONTACT! should really be Gilbert's opportunity to offer something to the city. And bringing in IRCAM opens up the whole American composers vs. international composers can of worms. This is something I've brought up before, and I'm not sure of the answer. On the one hand, I would love to see the Phil program a Nico Muhly, Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli CONTACT! concert. But you can hear all those composers' music in the city already, on a fairly regular basis. Certainly there is no shortage of Muhly on the streets of Manhattan (isn't he bopping around Brooklyn or something?). There's not a whole lot of IRCAM action rampaging around New York.

So do we remain faithful to America and perform music which we might be able to hear elsewhere in New York, or do we import things that are all over Germany and Paris but missing at home? Put it this way: I am in a city now that plays hardcore modernism all day, every day. I would kill for some New York downtown stuff at the Philharmonie. So maybe importing isn't such a terrible thing, if it adds a bit of diversity and comforts the homesick ex-pat.


Back to the Phil: What of our guests? Frank Peter Zimmermann, an engaging violinist with a killer Ligeti concerto, is being brought in not for that but for the usual fare of Bach, Beethoven, Berg, and Dvorak. I don't entirely buy David Zinman's Beethoven festival, which promises the PR nonsense of bringing "the listener as close as possible to the composer's original conception as performed by a modern orchestra" (Richard Taruskin would have a field day with that), and pairs the symphonies with apparently thematically similar works--concertos by Hartmann (yay!), Barber, and Stravinsky.

Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta return to placate the old folks; I'm excited for Kurt Masur's Shostakovich 13; and, finally, Philip Glass gets to make his debut with the Phil. I'm not entirely sure why orchestra members are needed in addition to the Glass Ensemble to perform Koyaanisqatsi, but whatever.

Another concern: This year will mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The New York Phil, Lincoln Center, and an anonymous New York family commissioned John Adams to write On the Transmigration of Souls in the wake of the attacks, and it was premiered a year later. The orchestra made a recording with Maazel, and the piece went on to win multiple Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. It is almost insane that they didn't perform it on the fifth anniversary of 9/11; how could they miss the opportunity now? Their season doesn't start until September 21, but it would be a profound statement to open their gala with that work. Or even to do a free memorial concert for victims' families on 9/11. Right now the best we've got is this Corigliano commission in late September/early October, which already sounds treacly ("a setting of meditations on war and peace"? paired with Dvorak 7?).

Of course, there is plenty to look forward to. I'm excited to see that Gilbert will be taking up the violin in performances with the orchestra and in chamber concerts, an opportunity I imagine we haven't seen since the Bernstein days (and a comparison I'm sure Gilbert is happy to make). And the finale of the season, the massive undertaking of Gruppen, Boulez's Rituel, and the ingenious additions of the Act I Don Giovanni finale (in its theatrical simultaneity, a precursor to Stockhausen) and The Unanswered Question. But this season we got two epics--Kraft and the upcoming Cunning Little Vixen. So why only one large undertaking in 2011-12? (Touring probably will take its toll.)

I'm still retaining optimism about Gilbert's Phil. Let's not forget, after all, that Gruppen's last New York performance was in 1965.


  1. Will,

    "I am in a city now that plays hardcore modernism all day, every day..."

    I am sorry to hear that.

    Seriously, I wonder how Herbert von Karajan would have reacted to see what has taken place to his Berlin Philharmonic and the wider classical world in general. He basically despised most hardcore modernist music.

  2. Woah there, buddy. I am perfectly content to hear this kind of music, it can occasionally just be a bit tiring, and I miss my minimalism (not that I was seeing a lot of it in Chicago anyway...)

    The Berlin Phil is not Karjan's orchetra--it's von Bulow's and Nikisch's and Furtwangler's and Abbado's and Rattle's and the German people's. And Karajan conducted his share of the Second Viennese School, if not Stockhausen. The wider classical world hasn't embraced Lachenmann that much more than Karajan would have. The musical scene in Berlin is broad and all-encompassing; I just end up hearing the crazy stuff.

  3. Well put, Will. What an absurd comment from Mr (or Ms.) Anonymous.