More on authenticity

Authenticity—as a component of marketing, as I discussed it in a recent post—is a powerful concept. If you want to make a new initiative seem plausible, the spirit of it has to permeate everything you do, or else people won’t believe you.

Case in point: the New York Philharmonic’s February announcement of a series of concerts it called “Visions of the Beyond,” and whose purpose, the Philharmonic said, was “to explore symphonic portraits of existence beyond our own mortality.” And right away there’s a problem. The Philharmonic isn’t an institution that discusses problems in spiritual or intellectual life. It plays music. So why is it now concerned with huge questions of life and death? Who’s going to believe this is serious? Who’s going to care? The whole thing, in the terms I’m using here, registers as inauthentic.

Of course, the Philharmonic could have fixed that. It could have gotten theologians and philosophers involved; held panel discussions; planned auxiliary events, like the all-night performance of a spiritual John Tavener piece that LincolnCenter actually did produce; commissioned a new piece from a spiritual composer; connected with religious music in other idioms; played concerts in churches, mosques, and synagogues.

But it didn’t do any of these things, and if the mere announcement of the festival seemed inauthentic, the details of the programming made things worse. The series started, for instance, with Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a complete performance, using Shakespeare’s text, with actors. But of course Shakespeare’s play isn’t about eternal life. It’s about the follies of love. Yes, there are fairies in it, and the fairies are immortal, but their immortality doesn’t figure in the play. They’re as silly as the mortals are. So nothing in the text and music even remotely fits the Philharmonic’s theme, and now we know they aren’t serious.

The second concert features Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (“Illuminations of the Beyond…”), which legitimately does belong on a festival like this (and whose title might have inspired the Philharmonic’s title for the festival.

But what else is on the program? Bach’s concerto for oboe and violin, and excerpts from his Art of the Fugue. The press announcement bravely tries to make this work: “Although separated by two centuries and two branches of Christianity, Bach and Messiaen were united artistically in their devotion to God and a deep Christian faith.”

And now we have two problems. First, the Bach selections aren’t religious works. Second, Bach and Messiaen might both have been religious, but it’s not clear that they’re in any other way alike. There’s an abyss between Bach’s dour Lutheran beliefs (the world is an abode of sin and sorrow), and Messiaen’s ecstatic Christmas-light Catholicsm. “United artistically”? That’s a mighty leap. I don’t believe it. Again the project doesn’t seem authentic. Nobody seems to have thought very seriously how the thoughts behind it would be manifested.

The other programs, which had the same problems, were Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust starting March 31, and Ligeti’s Atmosphère, along with the Beethoven fourth piano concerto, Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela, and the Janacek Sinfonietta starting April 7 (though the last one had to be changed when the scheduled conductor cancelled his appearance.) And here I might as well say that, if I’d wanted to be cruel, I’d have put “festival” in quotation marks each time the Philharmonic used the word. It’s pretty clear that these events really weren’t any kind of festival, in the sense of something planned in advance with a coherent purpose. Instead, they feel like ordinary subscription concerts, with a title unconvincingly slapped onto them.

I’m sorry to say all this, because the Philharmonic did try to make connections between classical music and a wider world, which is good. And, as I’ve said, they so easily could have made it work. (Well, maybe not easily, but the rewards—being taken seriously, making an impression both on its core audience, and, more crucially, on the wider world—would have been worth it.)

Best of all, the Philharmonic might have found a way to make the philosophical discussion come alive in the musical performances. By pure chance, I was just involved in some concerts where that happened. These were performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnism, by the Cleveland Orchestra, on May 26, 27, and 28; as I’ve mentioned before, I wrote the program notes.

The piece immediately presents some philosophical conundrums. It’s a setting of the Catholic mass, but Beethoven wasn’t a practicing Catholic. You have to ask, then, what parts of the mass he really believed, and, even more important, in what sense he believed them. It’s clear, for instance, that he didn’t care much for the lines in the Credo about the supremacy of the Catholic church. He included them (Schubert never did), maybe because he dedicated the piece to a friend and patron who’d been made an archbishop, and could have had the piece performed in church. But he buries the words, so we can hardly hear them.

And Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland’s music director, who conducted the performances, is convinced of something else. (I talked with him a lot about the piece, and watched him rehearse it; my note, as I’ve said before, was designed to set out what he thought the music means, and how it ought to be performed.) The Credo—the formal statement of belief in the mass—ends with a declaration of faith in eternal life. Beethoven makes this a giant fugue, which begins very quietly. Franz thinks that Beethoven “puts a tiny little question mark” behind that beginning, as if he hadn’t yet convinced himself that life would really be eternal. Thus Franz asked the orchestra and chorus to perform the passage that way.

And there we have exactly what the Philharmonic talked about, an exploration of belief in life “beyond our own mortality”—but tangibly present in an actual performance.

(I should make it clear that, no matter how much or how happily Franz and I talked, we never mentioned the Philharmonic.)

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