Thursday, January 26, 2012

a vicious cycle

You know it's the new year when Seated Ovation becomes the homepage for orchestral programming moanfests. Carnegie Hall announced their 2012-2013 season today, and it's a usual mix of awesome and ugh. A Carmina Burana CSO Muti opener is completely uninteresting to me, especially when followed by a classic Muti bizarro sandwich. The ACJW stuff looks good -- a Samuel Adams piece in the mix and some Missy Mazzoli too -- and this Gabriel Kahane concert just looks sensational. And I am 100% in favor of Spring for Music, though some of the programs aren't exactly things I'd want to hear.

I have mixed feelings about the Latin America festival. On the one hand, I admire Carnegie's interest in broadly taking on national musical cultures, which it's been doing for a while now. On the other, I am getting a little bit tired of the Dudamel/El Sistema celebration -- I have nothing against El Sistema per se, I just think there are a ton of great youth orchestras out there and I'd like to see them represented as well. (It would also be nice to see some classical/avant-garde voices from Cuba, like Leo Brouwer).

But the cycle, oh, the cycle. A year from now, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will be doing all nine Beethoven symphonies in four concerts. (Note that JGE's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique is already doing one all-Beethoven concert in the fall.). We've got Numbers 1, 8, and 5 in one concert; 4 and 3 in another; 6 and 7 in a third; and to round it off, 2 and 9.

Symphony cycles, along with heaps of music by the same composer in one or a series of concerts, have become the norm in orchestra programming. In L.A., we've got The Mahler Project. In Pittsburgh, The Beethoven Project. In Pierre-Laurent Aimard, we've got The Liszt Project (okay, that one's a little different). The New York Phil will be doing their Modern Beethoven soon.

I object wholeheartedly (wholeheartedly!) to this trend.

For starters: it's boring. I can think of few things less creative than slapping together a bunch of symphonies by the same composer, and pretending it's some kind of ambitious project. Yes, the audience will make connections between early Beethoven and late Beethoven, or Mahler's First and Mahler's Ninth (every critic always mentions this when the cycle happens, as if it's crazy that the Eroica might resemble the Ninth Symphony).

That's not innovative at all. Innovative could be saying: what's going on with the Eroica? One could provide a directly historical context (who else wrote symphonies in 1804?), broader cultural resonances (what other works echo the revolutionary might of the Eroica?), resonances with the past (what other composers wrote antecedents to the Eroica? what other Beethoven works that maybe aren't symphonies lead up to the Eroica?), resonances with the future (what did the Eroica inspire?), or, my personal fave, resonances with the far future (what contemporary music jells nicely with the Eroica?). At least thinking about these questions helps a little bit.

That's not to mention the alarm bells which go off in my head, the more I think about the cycle concept from a critical-musicological perspective. The entire concept of a symphony cycle was invented by record labels and high-profile conductors to sell box sets (feel free to correct me on this) -- it's continued by orchestras eager to show off their wares and push in-house label complete sets. It's foreign to Mahler and Beethoven, but for the latter, to me, it seems particularly wrong-headed.

Traditional orchestral programming from the, say, 1950s to 1990s, consisted of something like those Muti sandwiches: your overture, your concerto, your symphony (before that, it was a mixed bag approach). These days, you still get some of that, but what conductors (and ESPECIALLY Music Directors) want to do is present A Big Piece: your Bruckner, Mahler, or Shostakovich evening-length symphony. It shows off the orchestra, it sells tickets, and it sells the inevitable albums which promote the orchestra internationally as one capable of making a big sound for seventy minutes. None of these things is necessarily bad -- I'm very guilty of wanting to attend Mahler concerts more than any other -- but it's unfortunately endemic. I'm almost glad Muti is around to provide some weird-ass rep for Chicago instead of just delivering Mahler after Bruckner after Mahler.

And Mahler is a composer whose symphonies, from Number 1, do span worlds. Putting them together in seven to nine nights is a moderately terrible thing to do, not allowing the music to breathe, but the grand gesture of it kind of makes sense -- creating a super-opus out of super opuses. But the Beethoven thing seems, to me, like attempting to turn a composer who wasn't a fin de siecle maximalist into one who was. Grafting together Nine Symphonies into one megathon is the equivalent of turning Beethoven into Mahler. When Beethoven started writing symphonies, no one was making any claims that they represented the world. Philosophically, Beethoven's First and Second are no different from the symphonies of Haydn or Mozart -- they don't lend themselves to a maximalist approach.

Take a look at Beethoven's 1808 marathon concert: Yes, you had the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, but you also got a piano concerto, mass movements, the Choral Fantasy, a concert aria, and some piano improv. Besides Lincoln Center's replication, where else will you get an event in that spirit?

Instead, we have the Beethoven symphonies as one mega-symphony, with all roads heading towards the Ninth. Can you imagine ending a Beethoven cycle on a symphony that wasn't the Ninth? At first it sounds crazy, but think about it: it might actually be more interesting to hear the Ninth first, and work your way backwards, having the sound of late Beethoven in your ears when you hear the earlier stuff. Or maybe take 3 Beethoven symphonies and pair them with music of his predecessors -- we don't always have to move forward, we can move backward too. Or do late Beethoven with late Mozart, or early Beethoven with late Haydn. Or something with Spohr! Think a little! It won't make your brain explode, I promise.

But still, the appeal is obvious. A symphony cycle creates a spectacle, an event around which to rally, and that is something that classical music always needs. I just wish that there were fewer projects, and more actual projects (like this one).

*Note: I am against the cycle as a concept, EXCEPT for this, which will be the best thing ever.


  1. "The entire concept of a symphony cycle was invented by record labels and high-profile conductors to sell box sets." You've asked for correction and correction I'll give... the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester were the first to present a Beethoven cycle in 1825/6. The idea of such blockbusters was prevalent on the continent after that point. The cultural monolith - think the Ring - is something to test yourself against, as both performer and audience. It's not the only way, of course, to hear this music and I applaud the contextualisation plan. Furthermore, I think the cycle should be used sparingly - so programming two in one season is testing at best - but hearing symphonic development over the course of a cycle can be truly thrilling, particularly when delivered by a Beethovenian as great as Barenboim.

  2. First thing I thought about when I read the title of this post:

    I think you're right on with a lot of your points about the cycle, but it's really hard to trump the appeal. I'll take all the spectacle we can get.

    Still lovin' Seated Ovation, Will (Billy)!


  3. Wow, Gavin, I had no idea anyone had done it that early -- has anyone done any scholarly work on it? I'm sure there's a lot to unpack there.

    Thanks Kyle!

  4. I know... it's extraordinary. Mahler cycles became prevalent, as you suggest, around the recording boom. And, let's be honest, a Beethoven cycle is easier to take than a Mahler cycle (however glorious I find every bar).

  5. Right on, Will.

    I was ready to cry when we had one year in SF with a special focus on Beethoven and another with a special focus on Brahms. (I do regret not dragging myself to see Marek Janowski doing some Beethoven symphonies because evidently he was great.) We did have a terrific Schubert/Berg festival, though!

    My big question for season announcement season will be: what is SFS going to program next season after an extravagant year of playing All Sorts of Weird Shit, most of it absolutely wonderful?

  6. Can you name another big youth symphony orchestra from South America, or you are just dissing the Simon Bolivar because it has become so omnipresent? El Sistema is unique for South America, there are attempts to replicate it in the Buenos Aires State in Argentina, in Chile and now in Brazil but there is no comparable youth orchestra that I can think of (btw, I'm from one of those countries) Can you name one? (without googling it?)

  7. Sorry, I'm talking about youth orchestras generally -- I just wish that the language surrounding the Boliver orchestra didn't present them as if they were the only youth orchestra out there at all. But they absolutely deserve the fame accorded to them, and it's a great system.

  8. I agree with most ("who else wrote symphonies in 1804?" - that's a neat programming idea that I personally have never seen realized), and I (as a first time visitor) find the piece well written. Don't like the empty snark though - what is wrong with the CSO playing carmina burana? If you don't like the piece or find it played too often (probably not true except for one clip), or don't like Muti/CSO performing it, tell us why - just reading about your lack of interest is, well, uninteresting. And BTW, even though I liked the expression, but why bizarro sandwich for that CSO program? Just asking.

  9. Sorry, should have been clearer -- not a Carmina fan, don't think it's a particularly inventive or interesting way to open up a season (same thing goes for the Tchaikovsky opener this year). Muti has a tendency towards incredibly strange programming juxtapositions, and also tends to do what is known in some circles as the "shit sandwich" -- putting a new score in-between two classics, which usually ends up putting it in the worst possible light (I don't necessarily know if this is the case here).
    Better examples of the Muti strangeness here -- Clyne/Tchaik/Brahms, Rands/Cherubini/Hindemith, etc.

    I've blogged before about Muti's programming with CSO