Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Thoughts on Greg Sandow's: A difficult discussion

Catch his post from Greg Sandow on the future of classical music here


Greg makes a series of points about the whether or not orchestras are actively trying to improve their playing. He sites several examples of orchestras who tout on one hand how important quality music is to them and yet on the other hand the near complete avoidance of how to improve this quality when the subject is brought up. The main question: are orchestras really trying to improve or are they leaving improvement up to the individual players?


For my own part I think improvement can be looked at in a variety of ways; Is the orchestra playing technically better or Is the orchestra providing more exciting concerts. Maybe this last one isn't really an internal improvement, but one of external exposure. It does still, however, signify some change in the status of an orchestras performance.


In terms of improving technical ability there is the conundrum of the war between the individual and the ensemble. Certainly the lead chairs of a major orchestra have their own agenda, solo performances, outside commitments and their own careers they have to be concerned with. Plus, they are the principle chairs because of their quality performance (one assumes), so they likely feel they have already obtained a level of excellence. Improving for them is more a personal goal, rather than an ensemble. Add to this the general feeling that musicians at this level should know what it is to improve and don't need to be told (like they were in school) where they're lacking. This is a false attitude, but one I've experienced by more than a few professional musicians. I'm not suggesting they aren't interested in improving; they are just rather resistant to anyone externally telling them how to do so. On more than one occasion I've heard grousing about one or another conductor who comments on how they wanted something done, and the performers thinking they were idiots for even suggesting something like that --because the instrumentalists knows their instrument and how to do something better than the conductor.


This struggle to improve technical ability also strikes at the struggles between administration and the talent in professional orchestras today. In even the best of situations, there is an invisible wall between these departments. No matter how much the administrative staff knows about music, they aren't considered professional musicians (otherwise they'd be playing and not administrating), so the talent are rather loathe to take direction from the administrative staff. There are exceptions to this of course: the administrative staff can offer suggestions and make requests based on feedback from donors, board members, press or patron comments. Generally this input falls into the suggestion category and is completely within the scope of whether the talent is willing to take on the suggestion(s) or not.


In terms of more exciting performances and innovation I would like to look to a trio of conductors who are making waves in terms of what their orchestras are doing. Michael Tilson-Thomas, Gustavo Dudamel and Alan Gilbert are changing the audiences perception of what it means to go to the concert hall. The results bear out in hugh numbers of new "fans."


Michael Tilson-Thomas is doing a couple of things I really admire. With the San Francisco Symphony he created "Keeping Score", a PBS series detailing the history of the composers and the music as a way of educating the wider public about the integral elements of the performances. One of the reasons we love great pieces of music is because the music is so richly layered, which can be hard to appreciate if you don't somehow get to know it. Professional musicians love the music because they've all studied it. The common punter on the street hasn't spent years in the same study, so grasping the intricate details can sometimes be difficult. This is part of the reason music of the romantic era is still so very popular and late 20th/21st century classical music struggles. The romantic music has been around long enough to have public awareness and familiarity, but the modern stuff hasn't so the common audience member isn't sure what to expect or how to appreciate it.


With "Keeping Score" Michael Tilson-Thomas has been educating people on the classics, like Copland, Ives, Berlios and this year Mahler. As popular Mahler is with audiences, his music is still difficult to grasp. By educating people on what his music is all about, Tilson-Thomas's audience have a greater appreciation for what they are listening to.


Another reason I admire Michael Tilson-Thomas is his work with the YouTube Orchestra. This is HUGE in terms of audience reach and global interaction among musicians. The concert was broadcast live onto the concert wall, so thousands more than just those within the hall could appreciate the concert. Then it was posted on YouTube so millions more would watch and enjoy, and enjoy they did. This concert wasn't just about the music, but about the musicians as well, as bios and short stories told a bit about some of the featured artists. Again, it comes down to educating an audience about what they're experiencing. A modern audience wants to feel it is somehow connected with the artists they're watching. Even through a small screen video on a computer thousands of miles away, and several days later, people can connect with the performance. The YouTube Orchestra is probably the best single mass outreach an orchestra has ever done.


Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil are broadcasting their performances into cinemas. Taking a page from the MET's HD LIVE book, they are reaching out to thousands more audience members than they could possibly reach limited to their hall. Why does this work, when many orchestras can't even sell out their own halls? Because Gustavo has personality!! -- he has more audience appeal than perhaps any other conductor I've seen on stage. Some of what he does seems  "showy" in the staid world of classical performance, but an orchestral performance IS a show and the focus of that show is the conductor. Centuries ago great conductors used this showmanship to sterling effect - Jean Baptist Lully, anyone? Showmanship works, vaulting the LA Phil into one of the top 5 orchestras in the US, simply based on audience appeal.


I've heard comments about how Dudamel lacks maturity, and is unable to really understand the complexities of music in the canon. Yet reviewer after reviewer of his concerts calls him a "once in a century talent." It is worth considering the positive experience his journey from young hotshot to old master will be for his fans. I believe that when Dudamel is the Grand Old Man on the podium, people will be swapping stories of when they saw him at the beginning of his career. Gustavo is showy, and that's what attracts the audience, but he's also a skilled conductor who will only improve with age and that will keep them coming back.


Alan Gilbert's foray into innovation comes fairly recently with the NY Philharmonic's performance of Leos Janacek’s "The Cunning Little Vixen." This wasn't their first staged opera; they performed Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Le Grande Macabre” the previous year with great success. That success lies in the combining of opera and orchestra around pieces that don't really fit on the huge opera stage and yet are too richly orchestrated to be chamber hall works. The reviews are glowing and the classical world set on it ear, wondering what's next. The performances were not only engaging, but captivated whole new markets of audience members. This is what classical music needs --innovation and exploration.


Are orchestras getting better? I think some of them are. These projects created by Tilson-Thomas, Dudamel and Gilbert are pushing the musicians to think different, to expand their horizons and approach music in a whole new way. They are not only providing more exciting performances and reaching new audiences, but technically improving as well. They have to in order to keep up with the talent they face on the podium.

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