Monday, 3 July 2017

Why certain things don't work

The outgoing music director of the NY Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, has expressed his relative disappointment that many of his ideas for the orchestra have not been so enthusiastically embraced as he had hoped, in spite of his having programmed sensational works like Ives' 'Fourth Symphony' with its famous / notorious last movement of everything whatsoever thrown-in, Ligeti's 'end of time' opera 'Le Grand Macabre', and lots of new music by rather unfamiliar composers like Kaija Saariaho.

Gilbert wanted to perform Messiaen's gigantic 'opera' 'Saint Franciscus' which takes many extremely boring hours, but did not get permission from the financial department due to the hughe expenses involved. The reason for the reluctance to fully embrace Gilbert's artistic ideas, by audiences and staff, must not be sought in an apparent conservatism, but in the type of repertoire. It is admirable to include new music in the orchestra's series, but inclusion of types of music which do not fit the format of the performance culture of the medium, creates barriers instead of interest in renewal. Messiaen's 'St Franciscus', if measured by the standards of the central performance culture (and not according to historical categories like new or old), is a pretentious flop with a music that does not communicate anything; Ives' 4th when assessed with the same standards, is an acoustically sensational experiment and nice as such but lacks musical interest and comprehensibility, etc. etc. Audiences educated on the traditional repertoire have developed a sense of tonal and psychological coherence which is at the basis of orchestral performance culture, and such coherence can easily be found in new music (Nielsen - also programmed by Gilbert - is an older example but there are also tonal composers nowadays who write excellent and coherent and expressive music, especially in the United States).

Orchestral music is first and foremost a matter of the imagination, of interior experience, not of outward sensation and material gadgets (screens, performers dressed-up as something they are not, players on unusual locations etc. etc.). The reason that the old war horses are still so fresh is because they address the audience's interiority. This is not conservatism but a cultural deliniation, based upon universal human perception and not upon a one-sided preference for 'historic' repertoire. If Gilbert had had more perception in this matter, he would have programmed a more carefully thought-through type of new music and won-over the audience's scepticism. Maybe he lacks the instinctive musical insight to make such distinctions; but his attempts at renewal have to be admired nonetheless. The incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden, is much more of an instinctive connoisseur, so it will be interesting after a while to make comparisons as far as new repertoire is concerned.

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