|Carlos Kalmar, ebullient/Photo: Leah Nash|
The triumph of the Oregon Symphony at Carnegie Hall was duly noted by the New York Times (and still somehow created a kerfuffle of sorts), and the New York Times is a very good recommendation indeed. But I was waiting for the full review from Alex Ross at the New Yorker. He'd given a vigorous, positive nod toward Carlos Kalmar and company on his blog, and for me, the author of The Rest Is Noise, is at the top of the classical music reviewing heap.
Just to remove all suspense, Ross called the Oregon Symphony's performance of its "Music for a Time of War" program "one of the most gripping events of the current season." He then proceeded to describe the music and its playing in the poetic phrases that are central to Ross's gift as a reviewer. You know, like "the brutal timpani strokes that open Britten's symphony fell like cannonballs on the hospital ward." And then: "A sense of fragile resolution at the end of the Britten was torn asunder by the scouring dissonances of the Vaughan Williams...." Great stuff.
The primary point Ross made had to do with the thoughtfulness of Kalmar's programming, the way it created drama and a sense of coherence, the power of its concept. He compared this to the usual programming at American symphonies: "The mechanical reshuffling of canonical repertory creates the impression that classical music is all-purpose fabric that can be cut by the yard." (And may I just say that I love the professionally employed metaphor here?) This programming -- one old warhorse, one bright piece for the soloist, one newer but mostly harmless piece -- may serve some of the symphony's constituencies, but maybe isn't the most satisfying for any of them at the end of the day.
Can we connect a symphony's programming and "quality" to attendance (and financial health)? Does a symphony that plays more conceptually exciting programs very well have a better chance at success than one that plugs away at the old format in the old way? I'd love to see some attempt to measure this.
The problem is that you can't conduct a good experiment. We'll never know how much better the San Francisco Symphony does, financially, with master conceptualist Michael Tilson-Thomas at the helm than it would with someone less daring.
Ross doesn't mention the precarious financial state of the American symphony orchestra, so he isn't prescribing deeper connections between the elements of a program, a deeper purpose, as an elixer to cure their money problems. Still, an audience in a heightened state at the symphony has to be a good thing for all concerned. "Such programming forces you to lean in rather than sit back: it demands alertness," Ross writes at the end of the review.
American critics, in my experience, push for more adventurous programming, almost invariably. A critic is a peculiar audience member, though. How many concerts does Ross see in a year? Enough to know that the Oregon Symphony's performance was a highlight of the season in New York City, which is a lot of concerts. For that reason, possibly, music directors ignore the pleas of critics. Plus, they don't want to offend the strict constructionists in the audience, who might take offense if Firebird (the safest possible Stravinsky) appears in the program rather than... I don't know, Strauss? What do the strict constructionists want? Brahms? Well, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Symphony showed that it's possible to make Brahms part of a convincing new music program (even though the death of Gorecki took the edge off their last program, by denying the symphony they commissioned from him).
But Ross wasn't asking for new music necessarily -- just some coherence, a reason for existing, maybe a little musical drama or enlightenment thrown in to boot. Why? Maybe because anything else amounts to an insult to the audience. It assumes the audience doesn't know better. Maybe it doesn't, but then whose fault is that? To a certain extent, don't symphony orchestras make their own audience? And if that audience doesn't know better, why are symphony orchestras in so much trouble, economically? But our argument is getting circular here.
Commitment: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony committed themselves to "Music for a Time of War." They raised the stakes for themselves and for the audience. They demanded attention, the kind of attention that Ross gave them. And here, I think, I'm starting to make a case for fewer, more intense programs, which is a case I've made before. I don't know how it pencils out in the ledger book (speaking metaphorically). But I think it does work for the artists on the stage and the audience. Will that lead to larger audiences, ultimately? Well, lots of other factors come to bear on that problem. Don't we know by this time that pushing one button won't create a healthy future for classical music?
Yeah, I think we know that.
Not everyone agreed with my position on fewer, more intense programs. James Bash, for instance, at his Northwest Reverb site. I wish we could have debated the proposition.
You can listen to a recording of the Oregon Symphony's "Music for a Time of War" concert on NPR.