A rant and a rave
Here are a couple of brief takes from the weekend's arts coverage. OK, maybe not so brief. Pardon my blogorrhea!
The rant. Here's New York Times critic Vivien Schweitzer, beginning her review of a concert by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the New York Philharmonic:
"As the many empty seats for the New York Philharmonic’s subscription concert at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday evening clearly showed, conservative audiences often still shun unusual or contemporary repertory."
What's wrong with this? A couple things. First, the number of people attending any one concert "clearly shows" nothing beyond the number of people attending that concert. To extrapolate anything further is wrong. If Ms. Schweitzer has more detailed information tracking the effect of "unusual or contemporary repertoire" on ticket sales, I'd like to see it. Anyway, how would she know why the people who didn't come didn't come? Maybe they wanted to stay home and watch basketball.
Second is the implication that all "unusual or contemporary repertory" is equal in its magical audience-shunning powers. Not true. Just to cite one recent example, when the New York Philharmonic performed the late György Ligeti's opera Le grand macabre three times in May, 2010, it did big box-office and attracted many first-time Philharmonic attendees. In the concert reviewed by Schweitzer, Maestro Dohnanyi and the Philharmonic performed Hans Werner Henze's "Adagio, Fugue and Maenad's Dance" from his opera The Bassarids. No disrespect to the renowned German composer, or to his fine work (thank you Spotify!), but Henze's brand of Germanic expressionism may not be as appealing to new audiences as Ligeti's more visceral, colorful style. Neither was Henze's music given the boost Ligeti's got when used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then again, I would be reluctant to base any deeper judgment on just these two works, any more than I would base our overall audience's reaction to a piece of music we've broadcast on the one or two calls we might receive, pro or con.
The rave: Did you hear Scott Simon's conversation last Saturday on Weekend Edition with actor Ben Crystal, the director of a new series of recordings of Shakespeare scenes and sonnets done in authentic period pronunciation? Please give it a listen. What struck me by the examples included was not how strange they sounded; rather, it was how natural they sounded. This was not Shakespeare as "great art" — this was Shakespeare as vernacular entertainment, albeit of the most beautiful sort. Not that other productions with more modern pronunciations haven't captured some of the same colloquial quality, but this was extraordinary.
So I got to thinking: What if we did the same thing to the beloved masterworks of the past, treating them not as sacred relics, but as the stylish new works they once were? Of course, that's been one of the stated aims of the early music movement of the last half-century. But it hasn't always been the result; indeed, I'm hardly the first to notice that there are divisions and orthodoxies within the movement, as there are in the "mainstream" classical world. And I'm not really talking authentic vs. inauthentic, at least when it comes to instruments, size of performing forces, or the other things the early music sticklers sweat to get right.
No, I'm really talking about the spirit in which performers and listeners approached the works in their day, and how we do the same in ours. Concerts and (even more so) opera performances could be rough-and-tumble affairs back in the 18th and much of the 19th centuries. In some ways, they more closely resembled our present day night clubs and rock concerts than our ultra-civilized, church-like classical concerts. Now, I'm not suggesting we go all the way back to the "good ol' days" of classical deportment, which could be quite disgusting, or that we get a mosh pit going during Beethoven. But what if we were not just permitted but encouraged to applaud whenever we wanted? What if we could get up and stand near the stage? What if we could go to the bar and get a drink during Mozart? If you reject these ideas out of hand, please let me know why with a comment.
And what if the musicians loosened up their approach to the supposedly holy writ by the great composers — which were not regarded by the composers or their audiences as anything of the sort? Read a couple of New York Times articles about two musicians who have done just that, conductor René Jacobs and pianist Hélène Grimaud, and about the backlash from critics and fellow musicians. I'm on Jacobs's and Grimaud's side, big time. Give a listen to Grimaud's "offending" performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19 during the noon hour Monday on WFCR, and hear whether you're "shocked, shocked" as well.
(Photos: Hans Werner Henze, Hélène Grimaud)