Saturday, 30 January 2016

NY Phil's predicament

From 2018 onwards, the New York Philharmonic will be led by super talent Jaap van Zweden. This appointment has caused quite a stirr in and beyond the music world, and got - in general - positive reactions, although some people thought it is a 'safe choice'. Why 'safe'? Because the former music director, Alan Gilbert, had considerably widened the orchestra's repertoire with more contemporary music, which was seen as a refreshing update of the orchestra's profile - after all, this is New York, with sky scrapers, the international hub of finance, multicultural communities, and carrying a myth of progressive modernity. Its impressive skyline became an example to be followed by every city which wanted to join the unstoppable drive into the future of the Brave New World, from Shanghai via Dubai and Rotterdam to the inroads into the old cityscapes of London and Paris. Going to the Lincoln Centre to hear a Beethoven symphony may not quite be the 'cool thing' to do if you feel profoundly committed to the progressive blessings of modernity, and may cause an eery feel of conservatism. That is why Boulez was invited to modernize the orchestra in the seventies with the introduction of much new music which fell on relatively reluctant ears, in spite of occasional unconventional settings like matrasses on the floor instead of the more attention-inviting regular seats. Did this bring-in new, and especially, younger audiences? Indeed that seems to temporarily have happened, but when Bernstein took over the structural baton after PB's tenure with his Tchaikovsky's, a sigh of relief was noticed by some courageous observers.

And now, after another bout of refreshment, will the celebrated Maestro from Dallas be a Bernsteinian reassurement that the burning flame of the core repertoire has not been forgotten? This tension between the always popular works written by dead white European males from undemocratic times and the wish to feel related and committed to the contemporary world, is the essential problem of symphony orchestras all over the world, but maybe more pronounced so in New York.

In the New Yorker of 27th January, the well-known music journalist Alex Ross vented both his welcoming surprise as well as his caveats about Van Zweden:

Ross, who wrote a brilliant history of 20C music: 'The Rest is Noise', is a 'cool' guy, in both meanings, and therefore had preferred Salonen at the helm of the Phil, a brilliant conductor and composer (currently Composer in Residence at the Phil), and - in Ross' opinion - with a profile that invokes substantially more 'modern' associations. The question is, which interpretation of the concept of 'modernity' is suggested here. The only way in which an orchestra like the NY Phil can present itself as 'modern', is to peel away the suggestion that the stock orchestral repertoire is old, and that the modern repertoire is not quite compatible with the 'oldfashioned museum culture' of orchestral performing and reception practice. In other words: that there is no real 'break' between old and new repertoire. But how can 'old repertoire' be 'modern'?

For Van Zweden, the 'old' repertoire is not old at all, but timeless, or: contemporary for ever, it is music which has to be brought to life again and again, filled with the living energy of the actual performers. He subjects contemporary and 'old' works to the same, intense treatment, exploring all the life which is there in the score and communicating it as clearly and intensily as possible to the players. In this vision, Ross' caveats seem not only premature but also biassed. For him, the conducting activities of Mahler, Bernstein and Boulez are mentioned in one breath, which is only possible in a context where both the particular qualities of the first two and the limitations of the third don't count. In spite of his entirely justified correction of conventional 20C music history in his book, which spends as much attention on composers like Ravel, Sibelius and Shostakovich as on Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Boulez, and writing relatively ironically about the fanatism of the postwar avantgarde, he is still under the impression that modernism in music (as represented, for instance, by Boulez) is a continuation of the Western musical tradition, an assessment which seems to become increasingly feeble over time and which can quite easily be shown to be misconceived (as argued elsewhere on this blog and on my website:

When an orchestra wants to extend its repertoire into the 20th century and, today, into the 21st century, it has to do some thorough soul searching about the question, how to confront both the requirements of keeping the existing core repertoire alive, and of exploring new music from which meaningful additions to this core repertoire could be found, and meanwhile keeping the audience committed to the choices that will have to be made: unwelcome new works will threaten ticket sales, but the same effect could be expected if programmes would be entirely predictable and merely reflect the CD collections at home, evaporating the wish to attend a live concert with all the practicalities which have to be undertaken and endured. If 'modernity' is not understood as typical of and comparable with the symbols of the Brave New World, but indicating contemporary, real life authenticity, be it found in bringing old music to life or presenting new works, then these questions will lead towards deeper considerations like: which new music relates organically to what a symphony orchestra really is? and: how can we create the experience of a worn-out piece like Beet V as a fresh, contemporary piece? These are questions which go deeper than trying to relate to superficial gestures like closely following HIP in old works (Historically Informed Performance) and attempts at imitating the glass-and-steel architecture of international modernism.

Alex Ross rounds-off his article in the New Yorker like this:

During a Messiaen week in March, Salonen will conduct the “Turangalîla Symphony,” while Gilbert will play the violin part in the “Quartet for the End of Time.” Later that month, Gilbert will present the local première of Salonen’s riotous choral-orchestral work “Karawane,” and in June, as part of the new-music Biennial, he will introduce a Salonen piece for orchestra. From week to week, Gilbert has fashioned programs that have news value and that add to the sum of knowledge. He has kept alive Boulez’s vision of a “musical life that is part of genuine culture.” Enjoy it while it lasts. 

This reflects a rationalistic, 'cool' approach to programming, missing the point of emotional connection of performers and audience: '....... programs that have news value and that add to the sum of knowledge' sounds entirely irrelevant to the orchestral performance culture, it is really the very last thing to think about when planning concerts of classical music. Audiences don't take the trouble to dress-up, organizing baby sitters, finding parking place, enduring the heavy perfume and chatter of the lady on the next seat, to acquire news value and notice the sum of knowledge being added to. They prefer a live symphony concert to their CD collection to experience an emotional connection with musical works in a situation, very different from the atmosphere of daily life, they want to be transported into the magical world of tone, happening there and then, and be part of it. And the last covert bolt into the direction of the new music director shows that whatever great music making will be presented to the New Yorkers, it may be entirely missed by these particular ears.

The famous NY impresario Sol Hurok once said: 'If the audience don't want to come to the concert, I can do nothing to stop them'. Live classical music, and it can be argued: also recorded music, cannot exist without the concert hall, and without the flagship of Western music: the symphony orchestra. Which means, that it cannot exist as a living art form without an audience. And an audience can only be bound to live concerts if they are emotionally touched by the music making, which is the result of exemplary works performed in an exemplary way. The means to get this holistic context in place, and to keep it in place, are defined not by fashion or historicist notions like 'modernity', but by the emotional qualities of the music making and that also includes performing unfamiliar and new works - on the condition, that they address themselves to the channels of the audience's emotional perception. In general, and continuously so, music audiences don't listen historically or according to fashion, but emotionally and aesthetically; to keep them on board requires emotional authenticity and depth both in terms of repertoire and performing. Already on these terms alone, Van Zweden appears to be an excellent choice for the NY Phil, and then I have not even mentioned his extremely clear and expressive way of communicating his intentions to the players, both in rehearsel and in concert.

Does taking into consideration the audience's perceptive abilities mean, that programmes and their performances have to commit compromises in terms of standards, maybe not in terms of performance but in the sense of avoiding programming music which is 'difficult' or 'inaccessible' for the 'average music lover'? In no way. If music has musical substance, whatever its level of complexity, and it is performed with panache and serious conviction, this substance will come across, maybe not immediately but eventually. Audiences will surrender to the insights and confidence of the performers if these performers have been able to build-up a bond of trust with them. An orchestra is not serving the audience like a restaurant chef offers his dishes to his clients, but wants to share its fascination with music with its audience in the hope it will feel the same intensity and uplifting spirit that the best music can affect, the same spirit they experience in its preparations. In its loyalty and ever returning presence, on which the existence of the orchestra rests, the audience supports the art form and functions as an important party in the complex cultural system that is the symphony orchestra. Compromises in performing standards and programming would seriously damage the fragile balance an orchestra, and certainly an orchestra like the NY Phil with its long and impressive history, has to maintain.

Bernstein was a great musician and great conductor (don't worry, I will not repeat the anecdotal story of how he got Van Zweden to take-on conducting), and how he worked with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on a rehearsel I once attended, was revealing a temperament that did not think about music but thought entirely in the music itself, which is the only way to be able to grasp its inner life. This is what we call integrity in music performance. Van Zweden is a comparable type of musician, so the orchestra can look forward to quite some surprises.


Addendum 27/7/17:

Here one can hear what is the problem with Gilbert:

If we consider the 1st movement: it is excellently played, but just a bit under tempo, with the result that the melodic phrases and especially the upward runs fall somewhat apart in details, the energy is bogged-down, and with all the musicality the result is lacking the fiery energy it needs. One feels that Gilbert knows his job, conducts by heart, does all the right things, but he is not entirely 'in' it, and the reason probably is that in an emotional sense, it is not the repertoire he feels deeply commited to. This explains his interest in 20C postwar music.