Monday, March 19, 2012

spring for music contest entry no. 1

Vote for me here!

The internet is abuzz with protests regarding the Spring for Music blogger contest--to which this post is an entry. Given that I'm participating, I'm not exactly an impartial source, but I don't really see as much of a problem with the contest, and believe in the good intent of those who are putting it on. If I had more time I'd explain why, but I figured I would put that time into trying to win $2500. So, without further ado:

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

So, at first I was going to say something along the lines of, “Yes, sort of,” and then talk about what the “yes,” meant and what the “sort of” meant. But then I spent a weekend at an academic conference and realized I can’t take on this question without gagging.

Here’s the thing: a national capital makes sense. Even if it seems like most of our governing takes place on TV and Twitter (or doesn’t take place at all) we do need a physical place for all our favorite representatives to sit down and hash out our favorite new amendments and things.

But there is no place like that—nor should there be one—for the arts, or for culture. (I’m just going to go ahead and talk about culture as being the arts, since I’m not a foodie, and I know there’s other kinds of culture but those are the only ones I remember right now.) Where do all of our arts sit down in a big domed building and hash out our arts amendments? It would be kind of interesting to see that big domed building, but I don’t think we have one right now.

The reality: New York is, pound for pound, a Mechagodzilla of great music, dance, visual art, performance art, and more. The stuff is concentrated more densely per square mile than anywhere else in America. But a cultural capital is a concept we do not need, and it’s one that forces us to focus on a single city as representative of the most pluralistic, heterogeneous, and other-synonyms-for-diverse country in the world. I can’t think of a concept more un-democratic.

But let’s assume, for a minute, that there might be such a thing as a cultural capital. Should it be New York? Maybe, but not for the reasons you might think.

New York still holds the big guns, whether that's your world-class symphony orchestras, ballet companies, or modern art museums. It also has the small guns -- the galleries, bohemian neighborhoods, and new-music composer collectives. But are these artistic institutions doing justice to New York's claim as the top dog?

Take classical music. The fact is that the big guys of New York – the institutions that raise and spend the most money – have failed cultural life on a local and national scale in recent years. The musical organizations for which the city is best known are the ones that promote a deadening, mundane culture that entrenches stereotypes about classical music and its (supposedly) ever-aging audience.

Let’s start with the New York Philharmonic. It may be one of the best sounding orchestras in the country, but the Phil’s artistic agenda is somewhat intriguing at best and monotonous at worst. In the 1950s and 1960s, Leonard Bernstein brought the Philharmonic to the center stage of the world, turning a European virtuoso ensemble into a proving ground for modern American composers, inspiring a generation of young listeners to tune into the American sound of Copland, Harris, and Ives. Fifty years ago, he led a season that marked the opening of Lincoln Center with seven out of a total ten commissions for new pieces by some of the world’s best living composers. Opening night of Philharmonic Hall (today Avery Fisher) signaled to the world the importance music both new and American, with the premiere of Aaron Copland's acerbic masterwork Connotations. (Crazily enough, the Times called that unadventurous; imagine what Harold C. Schonberg would have thought of today’s programs.)

Boulez continued in that spirit of experimentation, crafting cerebral concerts which may have driven off older subscribers but challenged what role an orchestra can play as a curator of new works. In 1971, Karlheinz Stockhausen debuted his Hymnen with the orchestra, drawing a crowd described eloquently by the Times: "There was long hair, there were miniskirts and hot pants, there were bearded boys in sweaters and denims, there was even a suspicious odor that sort of resembled tobacco."

The suspicious order today is more that of spoiled milk. Music director Alan Gilbert has made some attempt to inject the orchestra with the spirit of invention, after the sluggish tenures of the three M's (Mehta, Masur, Maazel). There have been some rousing successes, like the 2009 performance of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, and in a few months, the orchestra will bring Stockhausen's grand, three-orchestra Gruppen to the Park Avenue Armory. But the Phil’s programs are overwhelmingly more-of-the-same, with a Beethoven festival this year and a Bach festival the next. There's nothing wrong with embracing the classics, but it should be with the aim of invention or discovery.

And where are the women? In the Phil's 2012-2013 season, only a single work by a woman will be performed. Imagine an all-male cast populating the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MOMA, and one can see that this artistic attitude does no justice to New York's claim to center of the musical world.

Examine orchestras across the country and one can find a wealth of artistic conviction and a penchant for forward thinking. Gustavo Dudamel has built upon Esa-Pekka Salonen's strong legacy at the L.A. Philharmonic, steering an orchestra which plays more new music than any other in the United States, with programs cleverly juxtaposing old and new. Seattle has a new guiding light in Ludovic Morlot, who has in his first season already demonstrated a commitment to contemporary music. David Robertson does great stuff in St. Louis; ditto for Marin Alsop in Baltimore. Michael Tilson Thomas is the closest we have to a living Bernstein, and his San Francisco "Mavericks" series is currently exhibiting the best of our native musical minds. The Oregon Symphony shot to fame last year in an apparently stunning Carnegie Hall concert, under the auspices of Spring for Music, which mourned the horrors of war via Adams, Britten, Ives, and Vaughn-Williams. The New York Phil has a lot to answer for. (It should be noted that none of those orchestras have anything approaching an acceptable track record for programming female composers.)

Things look even grimmer when we turn to New York's opera scene. The Metropolitan Opera, though never quite a hotbed of radical activity, has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. Peter Gelb promised a revolutionary regime, but the reality of the opera house is more boring then ever, though now with a commercial sheen. Many millions of dollars have been spent on a new Ring cycle that was artistically bankrupt on arrival. The best productions the house has seen so far, like Patrice Chereau's stunning From the House of the Dead, have been imported from abroad, and evidently Gelb thinks of Europe as an out-of-town tryout zone.

Meanwhile, opera companies around the country soldier onward, some with the artistic flaccidity of the Met, but others with a glimmer of ingenuity. The Virginia Opera and North Carolina Opera both presented recent Philip Glass scores this season; next season, the San Francisco Opera will premiere Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene; the Chicago Lyric Opera recently announced a commission by opera newbie Jimmy López.

If one peers beyond the veneer of organizations like the Philharmonic and the Met, one might just stumble upon something approaching a cultural capital, if such a thing existed. The true artistic wisdom lies in organizations like the collective Bang on a Can, which fuels the new music landscape of the city, and whose free, annual marathon concert democratizes the avant-garde. Or the Ecstatic Music Festival, now in its second season, which brings together pop mavens with classical composers and performers, creating collaborations which resonate across genres. Or Le Poisson Rouge, a club whose evenings trade off between Arvo Pärt and Bill Frisell. These are the off-Broadway classical, or maybe off- off- Broadway, but any theater-goer will tell you that New York's cultural value lies less in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark than the Wooster Group.

That experimental drive exists and persists in cities from Chicago down to Raleigh, and towns with orchestras that may not have a world-class budget but do display a world-class sense of innovation. Fantastic composers are sprinkled over the entire country, and new music ensembles crop up in the strangest places. American opera may find its future in the midwest. And let’s not even talk about the fact that plenty of America’s popular culture treasures – from film to country music – aren’t even based on the east coast. (My equating here of culture with opera and the symphony is a grand coup of elitism; my only excuse is that I write what I know.)

I think we need to abandon the idea of cultural capitals entirely. We still need our great American composers, and though many lived and do live in New York, their paths can be international, multi-cultural, and hybrid (they always were: see Aaron Copland). And even if the Internet allows new kinds of communities to flourish, we still need places where artists can sit down and make art together—but those can be found in Alabama, too.

The strange and wonderful thing about American pluralism is that we can look beyond center and periphery, and see a landscape which thrives with culture, from classical music to hip-hop to shape-note singings---as long as we're willing to seek it out.