What's Going On With Programming?
In the May-June, 2004 issue of SYMPHONY magazine, I wrote an article entitled "For Pleasure's Sake." In it, I lamented the disappearance from the repertoire of those pieces of light classical music that seem to have been largely relegated to the world of Pops concerts, even though when they were composed there were no such things as "pops" concerts...
I gave many examples: Chabrier's Espana, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, Enescu's Rumanian Rhapsodies, Suppé and Rossini overtures, Bach-Stokowski transcriptions, Ravel's Tzigane, Johann Strauss waltzes, Hérold's Zampa Overture or Reznicek's Donna Diana Overture, Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice and too many more to enumerate here. I had gone back and researched main series subscription programs of a number of American orchestras, and found that between the 1930s and 2000, the number of what we would probably all agree were light classical pieces dropped from an average of one for every program of the season to one for every six programs of the season.
What I lamented more than anything in the article was the all-pervasive seriousness, even grimness, of many symphonic programs. There seemed to me to be an atmosphere, perhaps encouraged by critics, perhaps by conductors, perhaps even by artistic administrators, that any concert worth its salt was a program that dealt solely with the profound life-and-death matters of the human condition that music an explore so wonderfully and thoroughly. But I pointed out that charm, wit, elegance, and humor were also important parts of the human condition, and equally worthy of exploration and exposure.
Although I haven't done formal new research on programming, I do go to a lot of concerts - and it seems to me that ever so gradually a lighter touch is beginning to make its way back into the symphony concert. Humor and charm seem to be an increasingly important component of some of the new music being written today, and also seem to be creeping back into general programming. I have also seen more Rossini overtures on subscription concerts in the past two years than I think I saw in the preceding decade.
If this is really a trend, it is a very healthy sign for our art form. I can be as deeply moved as anyone by the anti-war emotions churned up from my gut by Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, and I can and do respond profoundly to the mystical spirituality of a Bruckner symphony. But I don't want experiences like that every time I attend a concert, any more than I want the same kind of dish every time I eat in a restaurant, or the same kind of emotional experience every time I go to the theater. There are times when Eugene O'Neill is just the right thing, and other times when I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change hits the spot dead on.
If we want to attract and retain audiences, the symphonic experience must be as broad and diverse as the human condition is. The art form itself encompasses this entire range, if we don't exclude a significant part of it. If single concert that one goes to is a gut-wrenching emotional experience, something that calls upon the deepest and most profound emotions inside of each of us, it can get exhausting after a while.
The idea that a concert would consist, in part or in full, of sheer fun, rather than a deep intellectual challenge, might come as a surprise to some modern concert-goers. But it wouldn't have in any period between 1800 and 1950 or 1960. It isn't only those ten minute overtures mentioned at the beginning of these comments that we need to bring back in greater numbers - there are more substantial works that used to be staples of the repertoire but are far less so today: violin concertos by Paganini, Wieniawski, and Vieuxtemps; Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony (a work I'll bet most of you haven't heard - but which was performed and recorded by the likes of Beecham and Bernstein); Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol and Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien. I hope that my instincts are right, and that this kind of repertoire is again finding its place in our concert halls, bringing a smile to the faces of audiences (and, with luck, musicians and conductors as well).