Enough With The Anniversaries

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As I sat in the Colorado Public Radio performance studio last week listening to the luminous young pianist and composer Conrad Tao talking about how much he loves playing the music of Benjamin Britten, especially in light of the fact that 2013 is “a Britten year,” a thought about the off-hand way he expressed the composer’s anniversary gave me pause for thought.

No one in the classical music realm bats an eyelid when people speak of it being “a Britten/Wagner/Verdi etc year.” But if you think about it, the phrase is slightly ridiculous and meaningless to anyone who doesn’t operate within the classical music realm.

Describing a particular year is “a Britten year” doesn’t explain to anyone without a specialized knowledge that you’re talking about an anniversary. This is yet another way in which classical music-oriented artists and organizations distance themselves from the general public.

And here’s an even more fundamental problem I have with the notion of it being “a [insert name of composer] year”: With the possible exception of major news events like 9/11, I’ve never thought much of anniversaries as being a good enough excuse for media organizations to make a fuss.

I can’t understand why the classical music community spends so much time organizing coverage around composers’ various birthdays and deaths. Focusing on the past is a surefire way to ossify the art form. Surely there are more creative and relevant ways to put composers’ work in perspective than their anniversaries?

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Ms. Veltman – with all due respect, I vehemently disagree with your assertion that describing a particular year as one in which a composer is celebrated is “yet another way in which classical music-oriented artists and organizations distance themselves from the general public.” Quite the contrary, as these anniversary years can and usually DO serve as times during which classical musicians and organizations organize and present both concerts and events with a focus on the composer being celebrated and use those events as opportunities to educate.

    Of course, there are more creative and “relevant” ways to put composer’s work in perspective: in the case of Mr. Britten (or any other composer) do you care to SHARE an idea as opposed to harshly criticizing the industry?

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Hello Mr Thompson
      Thanks for weighing in. How about organizing coverage around themes that come up in Benjamin Britten’s work and relating them to current events? For example, with the Colorado floods raging now, I would love to hear Noye’s Fludde on air. And that could extend to other water-infused works by the composer e.g. Peter Grimes, Billy Budd etc. And then I would like to see arts organizations making the link between works to do with flooding by Britten and other flood- or water-inspired music by other composers.
      Yours
      Chloe

      • says

        Ms. Veltman – it sounds as if you are speaking specifically about the current situation in Colorado, which is noble. However, I repeat my question.

        • Chloe Veltman says

          I give Colorado merely as an example of how music can be used to tie in with real-life events. Floods don’t only happen in Colorado. And it’s not just about floods. It’s about paying attention to what’s going on in the world around you — which is what most artists — including composers of western classical music do — and finding connections between that music and the world we live in.

  2. Jim Cotter says

    If the references is being made on a classical music radio station ( as in the example you qoute), surely it’s not being aimed at the ” general public” but at an audience who will understand and have some interest in the subject?

    When JFK’s assassination anniversary rolls around in November, isn’t it possible that much of the wall-to-wall coverage of this anniversary will be irrelevant? But will that stop any outlet anywhere from covering it?

  3. says

    As an active composer and concert-goer, I have to say I agree with Ms. Veltman. To my mind, these celebratory years come off mostly as backward looking marketing ploys; all the more so since there are really only a dozen or so composers who get this treatment – the three B’s, and a few other big names. When was the last time you heard about a year celebrating Telemann or Schutz or HIndemith or some other lesser known figure, let alone anyone besides one of the 5 most well known living composers?

    If this is how arts organizations choose to sell tickets, that’s their choice, but let’s not pretend it’s doing a great job of broadening the audience. Who comes to a Britten year concert? Someone who already knows and loves Britten and wants another hefty dose of it.

    And to talk about “educating” the audience just reveals the elitism of the classical music industry, where the audience supposedly must be initiated into the mysteries of the music to understand it.

    This is not to say that all this music is not worthy music, but to grab a random birthday or death and focus a year of concerts around it is a pretty lazy method. To be more creative and thoughtful takes more time and research but the payoff is a program which genuinely will engage and entertain new audiences. In the past I’ve produced programs of music inspired by birds (without resorting to Messiaen), music about sports presented in a 19th century gymnasium overlooking NYC, a Valentine’s day program of songs of loss, longing, and jealousy with burlesque dancer Miss Dirty Martini. And I’ve even heard about a chamber orchestra that commissioned an animated video story to go with their concert series; each ended with a cliff hanger and to find out what happens next you had to come to the next concert. How are those for some more creative ideas, Mr. Samuel?

  4. powcello says

    This begs the question, ” What is the mission of a classical music station on PUBLIC radio?” Is it entertainment, enlightenment, artistic, agenda-driven? What measure of personal preference should factor into choices of theme and programming on a public station?
    I don’t live in Colorado, so am not able to speak for the victims of the terrible flooding there. But by your reasoning, when a tornado strikes my area, the classical music station should program the storm movement from Beethoven 6, the tornado music from Wizard of Oz, Stormy Weather, or something else related to storms. Hey victims, bet you’d like to hear music about storms right now, wouldn’t you? Or would music marking the anniversary of Mozart’s birth sound a bit more healing?
    Whether educated or not, people turn to the arts, any of the arts, in times of trouble. Classical music is about creating beauty, transcendence, and the larger themes concerning humanity. Maybe learning a little about Britten on the way to the FEMA office could provide some welcome momentary relief from loss and devastation. Maybe hearing the beautiful voice of Peter Pears could bring a few moments of beauty and wonder to someone who has lost everything.
    Ms. Veltsman, if there is something you’d “like to see,” then by all means, make it happen. How about going to a storm shelter and playing storm-themed music? That way, it could be your personal programming and you could see for yourself what effect that would have on the flood victims.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Thanks everyone for your thoughts
      Please don’t take the flood suggestion too literally!
      I merely meant it as a way of saying that anniversaries aren’t the only excuse to play music by a certain composer. We were talking about Britten; there are floods happening in Colorado. I thought — merely to present one example of thinking that goes beyond the insider-y lazy business of using anniversaries as an excuse to feature particular music — that bringing the two together in this way during a little of the programming might be productive and interesting.
      I think the mission of classical music stations can and should be all of the things suggested in powcello’s response.

  5. says

    Chloe, I share your sentiments regarding anniversaries, especially when the result is a plethora of organizations all doing work by the same composer within one season.

    I appreciate your response above with the suggestion of tying programming to current events. The arts provide us with a meaningful way to explore our feelings about our world, whether it’s enduring yet another shooting spree or natural disaster or celebrating a political victory or medical breakthrough. Your suggestion is appreciated!

  6. Laura says

    Packaging music by a single composer is the simplest way to create thematic drama, by chronology. It is no different than an art museum exhibiting the complete works of a specific artist. As an audience member I have probably never heard many of the works and appreciate the opportunities to find new treasures among them.

  7. says

    Thank you for pointing out the folly in all these anniversary celebrations. And please allow me to add all of those classical music institutional anniversaries as well. They are all very much insider rituals that have little resonance outside the bubble and, as you suggest, may be doing more to keep outsiders out than welcome new audiences in.

    If the goal is to broaden (or merely sustain) the audience, the only reason to celebrate an anniversary would be because research into audience motives revealed a hunger for anniversary-focused celebrations, i.e. “Our focus group respondents told us they find composer anniversaries compelling enticements to participate.” In the absence of such market intelligence, anniversaries are more like entries on a liturgical calendar that tell the priests which mass to celebrate.

    There’s nothing wrong with insider rituals, but if they’re created by insiders for insiders, and not influenced by the desires and expectations of persuadable outsiders, they can’t be considered useful tools for attracting the audiences on which our survival depends.

    My answer to Samuel’s question would be this: Do research into new audience motives and program/promote accordingly.

  8. Martin Cohn says

    I’m with you, Chloe. I’ve never understood this obsession with anniversary years either. But it is a good marketing ploy and could possibly to a spotlight on some neglected, but worthy, artists.

  9. Christina says

    Ok, the jargon may be off-putting, but anniversary years can actually be a fantastic thing for the classical music newcomer. Imagine that you’ve heard of this Britten guy, but you don’t know much about him or his music, having never been featured in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. So you look around your home city, and you might find one or two live performances to try, if you’re lucky. But the following year is a “Britten year” (or whatever we should be calling it). Now you look around, and suddenly you can find performances of many different works not just in your home city, but in the city you happen to be traveling to for work, and the city where your aunt lives that you’re visiting for Christmas. Now you can potentially see three or four or six different works over the course of the year and be able to say comfortably that you have some idea of what Britten is all about – you’re not such a newcomer any more.

    If you know of some other way that is “surely more relevant and creative” to produce that kind of programming coordination across presenters that hardly ever want to share or collaborate, please do enlighten us.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      thanks christina
      i think that there are many different reasons to play a composer’s music beyond the fact that he was born 100 years ago. I already suggested the notion of looking at current events as a possible hook. As for the anniversary thing, it’s great if you want to find out about this Britten guy and it just happens to be his birthday. But what if you want to find out about him and it’s not? The anniversary thing won’t help you.

  10. Eric Benjamin says

    Actually, in designing programs for my orchestra I’ll use anniversaries just to help me focus my selections – there is so much music, narrowing the choices helps me make choose works that have connections between themselves, a sense of flow in the concert, etc.

    Anniversaries do give us occasion to look a bit more deeply at a composer and his or her work – we can’t be exhaustive about, say, Wagner every time we program the Meistersinger Prelude, but the centennial gives us (and the audience) a little reason to read more, access new scholarship, dig deeper, think creatively about presentation, about his time and who he was then and what has happened since, etc. But, you’re right, the “Hey everybody, Verdi is 100 so let’s play him to death in case he already isn’t” just as a marketing tool is shallow.

    The kind of topicality you suggest is possible on radio but not so much on concert programs. Some orchestras made quick changes to attempt to speak to 9.11.01 soon after and I have heard some very moving accounts (the Pittsburgh Symphony stands out in memory) but not all orchestras can turn on a dime like that.

    And there is the issue of “ambulance chasing” – we can be accused of seeming to capitalize on a local tragedy, say, in order to make ourselves relevant. It’s a tricky dance.

  11. THYROARYTENOIDS says

    You should have been in Salzburg, Austria in 2006 when the summer Salzburg festival celebrated 250 years since Mozart’s birth. Every possible work of Mozart in the town where he was born and raised was performed or exhibited. Some anniversaries are great to celebrate.

  12. Steven Ledbetter says

    Programming related to current events can work well if we are talking about a radio station. But live performing organizations like symphony orchestras try to get their scheduld worked out at least a year or two in advance, and farther ahead if they are booking artists who are in demand or commissioning a new work.

    I personally like it when anniversaries of some kind or another are used to highlight some of the less well known examples of a composer’s work — such as Britten’s unfinished clarinet concerto drafted for Benny Goodman (and completed posthumously), which was played at Aspen this summer, though they also performed the big pieces like “Peter Grimes,” too. Or the 1982 Stravinsky centennial at Tanglewood, which included the big ballets, but also Requiem Canticles and many other less frequently performed works.

    Best of all, of course, would be surveys like that spread over several seasons, such as the Boston Symphony’s presentation of the complete symphonies of John Harbison over several years. It is common to do that with Beethoven or Brahms or Mahler. Why not the symphonic cycles of Piston or Harris or Schuman or Mennin or Sessions, as well as Harbison? First of all, that approach prevents putting too much of one thing in a single season and allows for variety and contrast; secondly it is a great learning experience in coming to grips with a body of work that most people don’t get to hear.

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Thanks for your excellent ideas, Steven
      Good point about symphonies having to program way in advance so being responsive to current events isn’t always easy. Though arguably they could throw some cool chamber music stuff up on stage or even as videos on their websites (union rules permitting.)
      I’m all for music organizations surveying composers’ music. I love the idea of doing this over multiple seasons. I still think that anniversaries are lame reasons to do this though. Shouldn’t it just be enough to say “Britten’s music says a lot about the world we live in today so we’re going to spend some time exploring the composer’s work in depth” and leave it at that. Surely genius doesn’t need an excuse?

  13. Friend8 says

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I always try to be circumspect about the ways people “in the know” inadvertently alienate those who are less informed about classical music.

    I must also say that slavishly observing anniversaries can drive some organizations into unfortunate corners in their programming. It can seem very perfunctory or rather silly to try and shoehorn a Verdi opera gala into your season if that doesn’t play to your strengths. I’m sure for some organizations it can be an artistically profitable way to organize a season, but there’s no reason to give it such emphasis.

    Plus, as you allude to, it’s just another way to celebrate the same old same old. 2014 is an anniversary year for Strauss, Rameau, and C.P.E. Bach but also Gretchaninov, Panufnik, Irving Fine, and lots of other less familiar composers who probably won’t be feted to nearly the same degree. The only time these anniversaries are really worthwhile, I think, is when they celebrate living composers. Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday was a great opportunity for this. Next year is Augusta Read Thomas’s 50th birthday; maybe that deserves a party?

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Agreed . I love the idea of celebrating 100th birthdays of composers who are still alive. The festivities around Steve Reich’s 70th a few years ago were also a treat.

  14. Eric says

    I don’t entirely disagree with you, but keep in mind something: the Britten estate also commissioned works in the honor of Britten, so that they didn’t just celebrate it with his music, but with music by composers who were inspired by him, to add to the repertoire. That to me, looks back, and also looks forward. Now, those newly commissioned works will not be as traveled as the Britten catalogue works, but it’s still forward progress.

    It’s different for composers who are living, ala Reich at 70 or 75 and certainly Carter at 100. That’s something you can celebrate in real time, rather than 250 years later, etc.