Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I had a few follow-up thoughts to Monday's post and the related comments that I thought would be better to just write as a new blog post. So to address the comments posted, in order:

Anonymous #1 - I didn't forget about Wordless Music, which is a fantastic idea and now essential to the New York scene. But at this point it's so tied together with Le Poisson Rouge that I consider them basically as a single entity. Also, there is an important distinction between that model and the Yellow Lounge. Generally, Wordless programs focus on certain new music which appeals to the hipster/indie crowd because it ignores the boundaries between genres. Its recent and upcoming performances, for example--Tyondai Braxton, Caleb Burhans, Jonsi and company---are composers whose place rests in the middle of the classical/pop spectrum. What the Yellow Lounge does, though, is focus on capital-C Classical Music. Andreas Scholl, Albrecht Meyer, Helene Grimaud: this is clearly performer rather than composer-focused (there are a few exceptions, like a September performance of Matthew Herbert's Mahler Symphony X).

I was initially disappointed that this was the structure---it seemed like they would be able to appeal to a wider swath of young people by focusing on a Nico Muhly or a Jonny Greenwood. But that they attracted such a massive young audience is a testament to the fact that there is a giant demographic in Germany (and maybe in Europe; they've done it in Dublin as well) who does want to see Classical Music. And for an organization like Deutsche Grammophon that is more important. If you are a classically-illiterate hipster going to see a Wordless Music event, it will probably hook you on the indie-classical, Bedroom Community/New Amsterdam Records Scene, not on the Mahler/Bruckner/Ravel Symphony Orchestra Scene. And though that's important, to sustain an audience for our major orchestras we need to hook people on the classics as well as the new stuff.

Which brings me to the next point---addressing how preposterous this is:
"Why is it so hard for people to understand that classical music and opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity ? Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population." - Anonymous #2

I'm pretty sure everyone understands this. Appreciation and love of most great art is confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population--only a relatively narrow segment of the population even buys CDs anymore. I never suggested that any of these attempts at reaching a wider and broader audience were attempts to get classical music into the top ten Billboard charts. Not only are those charts no longer relevant to today's wonderfully fragmented musical landscape, but they are completely irrelevant to classical music. I am talking about trying to renew an audience which needs to be renewed.

Just because something is not popular doesn't mean it can't become more popular; and by essentially throwing up your hands and saying "Well, it never was really that popular, so it never will be, so I don't have to do anything," is dooming classical music (and is also historically inaccurate). Classical music will never die. But to play a Mahler symphony at the high standard of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra requires a massive amount of bureaucracy and a massive amount of money, and those things do not grow on trees. To sustain the major organizations which are able to put on the major symphonic and opera productions, you need to renew the audience.

And to address Anonymous #2's second point: "In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through EXPOSURE... That sensitivity to music is almost like an aptitude, you either have it or you don't and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure."

That's what I'm talking about! All of these are opportunities to give people exposure to this music. And given the right circumstances and the right performance, I would say that most people exposed to classical music will like it. I doubt that a single person came out of the Yellow Lounge disliking classical music more than when he went in. And classical music, which is the most ridiculous broad genre heading besides "Pop," encompasses so much that there is literally something for everyone.

And opera used to be of a very wide appeal, just not as much in America (I like the irony of a commenter calling themselves "Verdi" and claiming that opera is a niche market). We need to remember that a lot of these issues are essentially American issues. In nearly every park in Germany, there is a statue of Beethoven or Mozart or Bach; that is not the case here with Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. Without the built-in audience which Germany has for the symphony and Italy has for the opera house, it is even more important for American organizations to renew.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

*Disclaimer: In the following paragraphs, conclusions will be formed based on anecdotal evidence. Not statistics or audience polling, but the wholly unscientific method of looking around a concert hall and seeing what’s what. This is not the proper way to measure the health of an art form—this is speculation. Readers beware.

The desire to capture a youthful audience is the strongest trope in today’s classical music scene. Nobody really knows how to do it. Organizations throw everything they can at the under-40 crowd and hope some of it sticks. When an event attracts that ideal mix of hip-and-not-graying and older-but-not-coughing-horribly it’s a success, but most of the time nobody really knows why. A perfect cocktail of marketing, attractive programming, critical build-up, and engaging performers theoretically should do the job, but about half the time it doesn’t.

So I decided to see how Berlin, versus New York and Chicago, got it done. It’s a given that the classical audience here is a completely different beast from that in America. One of the most elusive American demographics (and one which orchestras tend to forget about) is the middle-agers (I use that term loosely), the 35-to-55 crowd who are too young to have grown up with Leonard Bernstein on television but too old have learned about Nico Muhly through Björk or Messiaen through Radiohead. In Germany, that’s not a problem—most audiences are equally divided among the various over-35 age groups, younger parents mixed in with the elderly. That’s probably a combination of their educational system with the deep sense in which classical music is ingrained in their culture; here, it’s just as natural for adults to attend the symphony as it is for adults to attend an art museum in the U.S.

And, generally, young people turn out for the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s an especially large surplus of the 25-35 crowd who dress well and seem culturally refined, more like the breakdown of the Met Opera than the New York Phil (the Staatsoper audience, based on the two performances I attended in their main theater, seems to skew older).

So the attempts to capture a young audience in special events don’t smack of as much desperation as they do in the States. One of my complaints about the CONTACT! concert I attended in New York last season was that it seemed like the Philharmonic was trying a bit too hard, going down a checklist to make sure they had done everything they could to create “buzz.” Live-tweeting, as Timothy Andres noted recently, is a silly thing to encourage. The event felt mostly self-congratulatory, a gathering of insiders who were glad to see that the audience was so young and so filled with insiders.* The model has changed in New York, for the better: Le Poisson Rouge, Q2, New Amersterdam Records, and the smart programmers at Lincoln Center and Carnegie have created a new, better classical scene. But it’s still a learning process, and most successful events seem particularly engineered for success, carefully planned so that every ingredient will yield a fresh-faced audience.

If the same was done for the Yellow Lounge I attended a couple weeks ago, it was not nearly as obvious. Deutsche Grammophon has been producing these concerts once a month for a couple years, in an attempt to combine nightlife and classical cultures. It’s a different approach from Le Poisson Rouge—each event takes place in a hip Berlin club and features a classical performer along with a DJ who messes around with classical music. Advertising seems almost nonexistent. I didn’t see a single mention of a Yellow Lounge among the deluge of classical posters which fill every Berlin subway stop (a feat unto itself) and only found out about the event through its website. And it wasn’t exactly easy to get to—it took almost an hour of wandering in Friedrichshain to find Berghain, the warehouse-turned-club which hosted countertenor Andreas Scholl and DJs Canisius & Terrible.

And then I saw the massive line of people out the door. Hundreds *anecdotal alert!* lined up to get in at 6 Euros a head. The audience was not just peppered with young people; it was almost exclusively 35-and-under, identical to the average Berlin clubbing crowd. These were people who queued every weekend at the Berghain to dance. It was astounding to see.

More astounding was the silence during Scholl’s tender, poetic renditions of songs by Dowland and Purcell as well as several English and Irish folk tunes. Placed on a stage in the middle of the club and sensitively accompanied by a pianist whose name I never caught, Scholl commanded the massive warehouse, receiving rapt attention. He made brief remarks between the songs which were informative but not condescending, treating the audience like peers and not pupils. In-between his two sets, the DJs spun a mix of classical hits—Brahms and Shostakovich symphonies, Beethoven piano trios. It was nice to hear a DJ for whom classical music meant the heavy classics, not just the Four Seasons and the Brandenburg Concerti.

My second alterna-concert was a bit more conventional. At the Philharmonie, the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin hosts three Casual Concerts per season, each a short program without intermission, followed by free admission to the nearby club 40seconds. The orchestra dresses down (which looks really tacky), tickets are cheap (10 Euro for students, 15 for general public), and seating is open. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a young audience. Last Thursday, the audience didn’t look all that different from the standard Philharmonie crowd, and the entire front orchestra section was filled with a graying, albeit casually dressed, group. Looking around and behind me, I saw a significant amount of young people, but not the youthful surprise of the Yellow Lounge.

Matthias Pintscher conducted the orchestra in his symphonic poem Osiris and Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnol as well as providing mini-lectures introducing each work. Inspired by the Egyptian legend as well as a Joseph Beuys sculpture, Osiris is a silvery sheen of unwinding melodies, a soliloquy of floating string eeriness punctuated by solo trumpet and contrabass clarinet gurgles. Though it sounds wholly modern, it relies on a fairly 19th-century concept: the solo trumpet represents Osiris, the strings his lover Isis, and the subterranean clarinet his jealous brother Set. We are not far from the character-based, programmatic music of Berlioz and Liszt. Each gesture is carefully composed and orchestrated, and the orchestra played with stunning clarity. Ravel’s Rhapsodie, written a century before Osiris, made a compelling companion work. Pintscher conducted with a broad, loving beat and the orchestra gave the shimmering score a gorgeously blended performance.

So, in all of these ventures, what marks success? That is, beyond the inherent artistic success—good music performed well. The most basic way of measuring the achievement of any concert is how well it fills the hall. But the goal for these events, theoretically, is also to attract a new kind of audience. So then the Casual Concert was probably not a complete success, assuming that their goal goes beyond just making a concert more casual (which would be an awfully modest objective). The crowd who went to the afterparty at 40seconds (with music provided by a brass quintet from the DSO) was on the older side, for the most part indistinguishable from everyone I’ve seen at the Philharmonie in the past month.

And then the larger goal is to sustain that new audience in the future. It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: hook the young crowd on the Yellow Lounge and the casual concert and hope they start coming to the Philharmonie to see some Brahms.

There’s also the idea that these concerts are valuable in their own right. Assuming that classical music is something inherently good that will improve everyone’s lives, it is worthwhile to get a few hundred people to hear some of it for one night. So if the Yellow Lounges don’t necessarily hook people on classical music, at least they give them an enjoyable evening—not a sustainable growth, but a worthy effort.

What is great, and what is measurable about all these concerts, is that they themselves mark the shift in the paradigm. That they exist and that they are well-attended means that the big institutions are awake and care. Hardly anyone anymore (besides maybe Riccardo Muti) is arguing that, in terms of classical music, “If you build it, they will come.” There is nothing inherent about classical music that will continuously renew its audience: you must bring the mountain to Mohammad.

*Weirdly enough, I wrote this post before reading Anthony Tommasini’s review of this season’s first CONTACT!, which glosses on some of these issues.

Friday, November 19, 2010

reindeer games

So this month the Hamburger Bahnhof is featuring a stunning installation by the Belgian artist Carsten Höller, a wholly bizarre mish-mash of myth and science. Soma conceives of an experiment aesthetically: Höller divides the main exhibiton hall into two parts, filling both with reindeer. On one side, the reindeer are fed a hallucinogenic mushroom (apparently part of their regular diet, so I guess it's not animal cruelty); the other is a control group, given the usual reindeer grub.

Soma, an ancient healing elixir, is theoretically distilled through the urine of reindeer who consume the mushroom. The urine is then fed to the mice, canaries, and house-flies also part of the grand scheme (that part might be animal cruelty). Apparently part of the artistic ambiguity is trying to figure out who's high--do the reindeer know they're high? Do the mice know they're high? Do the mice know that you think they're high? Are the mice freaking out because their parents are coming home any minute and might smell something and last time they got caught their dad said that he was going to send them to boarding school?

Beyond the quasi-scientific trappings, though, the exhibit makes for a surreal set of images. Reindeer strewn about the hall, giant jars of urine, the double mushroom clock. It's an exciting way to spend an afternoon. And kid friendly too! (maybe don't tell them about the pee-pee). Also, if you've got $1000 lying around, you can spend the night in a canopy bed in the middle of the museum and pretend you're Ben Stiller (no guarantees that the giant Warhol paintings come to life, though).

The aforementioned reindeer piss.

Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen

Comet and Cupid, Donder and Blitzen

The canary cage

I think "The animals are able to rotate the Double Mushroom Clock" is perhaps the best sentence I have ever read.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the big score

After two years of successful score-hunting at the annual Northwestern University library book sale (my big win last time was a Denson edition of The Sacred Harp, the very week I was writing a paper on it), I was skeptical that a public library book sale would have anything of value. But this isn't any ordinary public library system: this is Berlin. The library I regularly use, the Amerika Gedenkbibliotek, has a full wing devoted to music, filled with loads of CDs, many scores and a ton of books (the complete writings of Dahlhaus! five books on Bernd Alois Zimmermann alone!).

So I was a little disappointed on Saturday that their book sale, which took place at the main library in Mitte, only took up one medium-sized room. One table had several boxes of scores over and under it---it seemed like slim pickings. But going through each of those boxes was like going through Christmas presents---actually more like rifling through a box of Christmas presents and picking out the best ones.* I turned down interesting scores by Dessau, Boris Blacher, Liszt, and full Verdi and Rachmaninoff opera scores in favor of the elite fifteenI finally decided upon, at 2.50 Euro a pop (plus a copy of Adorno's writings on Beethoven):

Boulez, Le marteau sans maitre
Berg, Altenberg Lieder (piano-vocal)
Cherubini, Requiem in C-minor
(my shout-out to Muti)
Peter Maxwell Davies, Prolation for Orchestra
Henze, Das Flos der Medusa Oratorio
Henze, Musens Siziliens Concerto for Chorus, 2 Pianos, Winds, and Percussion
Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots (piano vocal) (my shout-out to Botstein)
Penderecki, The Devils of Loudon
Stravinsky, The Fairy's Kiss
Szymanowski, Fourth Symphony
Michael Tippett, King Priam
Weill, Concerto for Violin and Wind Ensemble
Zimmermann, Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu
Zimmermann, Enchiridion

And my crown jewel:
Zimmermann, Die Soldaten (piano vocal)

The best 40 Euro I will ever spend.

*Having no Christmas present experience, I must assume that it goes something like this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

i'm not dead

This has now been the longest hiatus I've had since starting this blog last December. But there's a good reason! I have been without internet in my apartment for six weeks now, blogging in libraries and internet cafes. It was my goal to make this blog more of a travelogue with pictures and such once I got to Berlin, but lack of home internet has made this difficult. If all goes well, I will return in full force when I get internet in a week. Look forward to posts on giant Wagner statues, the Yellow Lounge, kites at Tempelhof, and much more.

In the meantime, here's a pretty picture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

resisting mahler

At their very best, orchestral programs can be stunningly original, intellectual, eye- and mind-opening: a juxtaposition of works becomes a synthesis of elements, drawing out unperceived possibilities in music, revealing the inner secrets of composers’ dialogues with history. A clever pairing of works by Brahms and Haydn elucidates both composers—who knew that Brahms had so much of Haydn’s brusque humor? Who knew that Haydn had so much Brahmsian pathos?

Very rarely does the act of programming an evening of music approach art in itself. Good programming may illustrate a clever, but it is usually a skill, not an art. In the case of the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Mahler’s Second Symphony, though, intelligent programming did more than just help the listener make connections between two like-minded artists. It created something which felt artistically significant unto itself, something with a world-historical weight which never finds its way into an orchestra concert. Mahler’s symphony acquired a depth of meaning, a coil of interpretive layers, which I had never before perceived.

The triumphalist narratives of Mahler’s first two symphonies are part of a continuity which reaches back to Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth: the affirmation of the will, the overcoming of tyranny, the vanquishing of death and the enemy. A thirty-five minute, apocalyptic Grand Guignol comprises the finale of Mahler’s Second, achieving terrifying dramatic heights before the entrance of the chorus and the resurrection. That final chorus is one of the grand summations of a tradition begun by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, continued in Liszt’s Faust Symphony, and brought to its over-the-top apotheosis in Schoenberg’s Gürre-Lieder.

The harrowing conclusion to Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw is an indictment of this Schlusschor tradition, a refutation of the brotherly paradise promised by Beethoven and Mahler. In only six minutes, Schoenberg destructs the entire narrative tradition he once embraced. As the speaker describes an experience at a concentration camp, in which a group of prisoners is being counted to be sent to the gas chambers, an all-male chorus breaks out into the Shema Yisroel, the Jewish credo. It is the voice of those about to be marched to their deaths, a desperate affirmation of faith in light of the knowledge that all men are not brothers. Simon Rattle barely let the air clear after the Shema before plunging into the depths of Mahler’s funeral march—Schoenberg’s doomed victims right next to Mahler’s heroic procession.

Where Bruckner, Beethoven, and especially Wagner demanded close scrutiny following the Nazi appropriation of their music, Mahler escaped undamaged, experiencing his biggest boom in the decades following World War II. But one can’t help but re-examine Mahler when it’s placed in such close proximity to Schoenberg’s A Survivor. The aesthetics of fascism are a twisted form of 19th-century Germanic ideals and Wagnerian symbolism. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a perversion of Beethoven’s Ninth and Die Meistersinger in film form, a metaphor for fascism as what Susan Sontag calls the “grotesque fulfillment—and betrayal—of German Romanticism,”* (a view held by Thomas Mann and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg).

We cannot look upon the past without the knowledge of its future, and this is exactly what Rattle’s pairing does: framing a symphony which seems to exist outside of its time with a piece which makes painfully evident its placement in history. The triumph of Mahler’s Second is wrapped up in the triumph of the unified, arrogant German monarchy of the 1890s, the era which the Nazis deemed the Second Reich, their nationalist precedent.

The disturbing, skeletal low string bow bounces towards the end of Mahler’s funeral march echo Schoenberg’s pungent bow slaps. The valiant fanfares of Mahler’s finale, the resounding of military trumpets and snare drum, recall the orchestral effects which accompany Schoenberg’s speaker imitating a Nazi officer. Tropes of triumph resonate as hallmarks of evil, the very intent of the symphony turned on its head.

So what can we do with this information? Surely the years 1933 to 1945 cannot retroactively poison the entire Austro-German historical and artistic lineage; that is certainly the opposite of what humanists like Thomas Mann would have wanted (though Mann presages this in Doctor Faustus). And Mahler, obviously no anti-Semite, should be innocent. Justin Davidson wrote last year about the idea of resisting Wagner, and Richard Taruskin has an essay about resisting Beethoven’s Ninth. Even if I could, is it necessary to resist the overwhelming sublimity of Mahler’s Schlusschor? Rattle reminds us that that this victorious dramatic saga is not distant from a world of overcrowded ghettos and gas chambers—that even in the concert hall, we have a responsibility to never let ourselves fully go, never embrace the music wholeheartedly, never let go of our historical awareness to what Davidson calls (in reference to Wagner) the “coercive rapture” of the music.


The irony, of course, is that to deliver such a stupendous concert, Simon Rattle did have to give everything he had to the music. Intellectual distance may benefit programming, but it does not make for a searing performance. Schoenberg’s brief work benefitted from the clarity of the Berlin Philharmonic and Rattle’s sensitive but engaged conducting, as well as Hanns Zischler’s severe narration. And Rattle’s Second, my third this year (the first two from MTT), was easily the best Mahler I have ever heard. Rattle drew on the pristine playing of the orchestra, crafting a rich landscape of sounds with an organic sense of pacing. Somehow he managed to continuously produce more and more energy; unlike MTT, who occasionally feels like a puppeteer, Rattle is perfectly willing to simply let things happen, sometimes barely moving his hands and letting the orchestra do the work.

Magdalena Kožená sang the opening of the Urlicht at a whisper before emerging full and radiant, her voice finding the consummate balance of innocence and sorrow. In the episodic finale, the level of musicianship continuously shocked, with a trombone chorale which sounded more like an organ than an organ does, and breathtaking singing from soprano Kate Royal and the Runkdfunkchor Berlin. And the final delirium of the resurrection swept me away. Any sense of historical consciousness, of what the Germans calls Vergangenheitsbewältigung, became irrelevant—intellect overpowered by beauty.

*In “Syberberg’s Hitler,” part of A Susan Sontag Reader, p. 411.