Unlikely to happen

Sometime in the past year I heard an indifferent performance of a familiar symphony, by a major orchestra. Doesn’t matter where or when, doesn’t matter who the conductor was. There was no nuance, no joy or excitement, no real connection between one moment and the next, though maybe there was at least a certain amount of vigor and efficiency. I asked a musician in the orchestra what he thought of the conductor. He said, “Look, there are some pieces we just shouldn’t play unless the conductor can really make something of them.” This piece was one of them. When I asked what the others were, he answered in a single breath: “All the Brahms symphonies, all the Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Beethoven symphonies, the New World Symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique.”

Which made me wonder: What if orchestras simply wouldn’t play these works, if the performance wasn’t going to be their best? What if they — and their music directors and artistic administrators — just refused to let it happen? Impossible, everyone will say. Of course orchestral artistic administrators will try to avoid pieces they really don’t want someone to conduct, but they’d be the first to say that compromises must be made. To please the audience, there’s normally a standard work on every program. And since you can’t always get the guest conductors you want…and can’t always tell them what to do…and since (with more than 20 programs a year to juggle, in the case of big orchestra) you may not have much room to maneuver, for all these reasons (and probably more) you’re often enough stuck with something you don’t fully want.

I have to accept these practicalities. But along with them, shouldn’t we accept their consequences? Orchestras play too many concerts that they know aren’t their best. And they know this, much of the time, in advance. They go into many concerts cynically, or at least somewhat cynically, knowing in advance that they won’t be able to play their best.

Is this a good thing? What would happen if orchestras didn’t accept the current limitations, and tried to make every concert special?

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  1. says

    Everyone wants to hear a special concert. I certainly do not attend a symphony concert hoping to hear the average or uninspired. I daresay this is the reason most average folk even attend a live classical performance. “Special” is our responsibility and our privilege.

  2. Richard Voorhaar says

    You could also add a lot of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert et al. The problem with the standard

    rep is not that it isn’t loved, but that it has been loved too much. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. More and more I’m leaving concerts after intermission because the second half music is some old warhorse.

  3. says

    I’m reminded of a quote I heard attributed to Rzewski (I can’t substantiate it, but maybe somebody else can?):

    “We don’t need more first performances, what we need is more last performances. Nobody cares about the first performance of a new work, but think about what the _last_ performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would be like.”

  4. Yvonne says

    I want to put forward a tangential view. This takes a par to set up, so bear with me.

    One of the things that defines a masterpiece is that it can withstand pretty much any kind of interpretation/performance style. Think of all the arrangements, transcriptions and reconceptions of Bach – the essence that is the masterpiece always survives. But Telemann or Boismortier? Anything short of a fine period instrument performance is going to be disappointing. Similarly, Beatles (masterpieces) and ABBA (the Telemanns of pop – good music but get the style right or don’t bother).

    And that’s why at a performance of, say, Beethoven’s Fifth that the ‘jaded golden ears’ would call ordinary or rough, many in the audience will still be excited and moved by the the music. (And it’s why works like that made an impact despite scrappy premieres, see the end of Greg’s “Another Lost Opportunity” earlier this month.) Of course, those listeners will be even more excited and moved by a really fantastic performance.

    On the other hand, there are works that are worth performing and hearing, but which absolutely depend on good advocacy – by which I mean insight, conviction and fine performances – if they are to come off in the concert. So if, as an artistic administrator, I have to make “inevitable” compromises, I’m even more concerned about not having artists who can “make something of” a Dvorak Piano Concerto or an original Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain than I am with a Beethoven symphony.

    Now I completely agree that I wouldn’t want to hear (or program) a Tchaikovsky or Beethoven or Brahms symphony – or any other work – with a conductor who can’t “make something of it”. But I disagree that this is a problem that only concerns some select list of “sacred cow” works. Every concert should be special, regardless of the program, and every conductor should be the right person for the repertoire.

    But should we _refuse_ to program masterpieces because we suspect that the performance might be less than ideal? That would be like saying a soccer team shouldn’t go on the field unless they can guarantee a win. (Given the statistical likelihood of a draw in soccer, that would be seldom.) For the health of music and of orchestras and our audiences, we should be playing as much really great music as well as we can as often as we can. We won’t always “win”, but I don’t think we “win” by being miserly with the masterpieces either.

    A footnote: There are orchestras who will blame the conductor whenever they don’t play well; there are others who simply don’t buy that, and take great pride in giving a strong performance regardless of who is in front of them. Yes, the conductor is responsible for the interpretation, and he or she absolutely makes a difference. But the responsibility of making every concert special belongs to everyone on the stage. Cynicism is a choice. To be fair though, the prevalence of cynicism in the orchestral world reflects the nature of orchestral music-making. The modern orchestra is a child of the 19th-century industrial revolution: everyone’s a cog in the works and there is a pervading sense of powerlessness combined with a phenomenal level of intelligence and expertise. You don’t find that dispiriting combination in any other field of endeavour. And it’s a whole other issue that orchestras need to address.

    Thanks, Yvonne. This is really sharp and interesting.

    I think that people aren’t going to program the Dvorak Piano Concerto unless they have somebody who can really do it well. That’s another reason why the routine programming of standard repertoire is so dispiriting.

    But you raise a good point. Dispiriting for whom? Me, obviously, maybe you, certainly the orchestra. But of course there are people in the audience who, just as you say, enjoy the music anyway, because something very likely does come through.

    Likewise — and far more often, I’d think — members of the audience just aren’t very aroused or impressed by a performance. If you’re new to the orchestra (as, by the way, a huge proportion of single-ticket buyers seem to be at any given concert, according to information I’ve gotten lately) you might not come back again. You don’t really know why. You liked the performance; nothing wrong with it, as far as you can see. But you just weren’t all that interested. It’s really the fault of the performance, but you don’t know that.

    Or, if you’re a frequent concertgoer, even a subscriber, you find your interest waning. Same reason — you can’t say that anything is wrong, but you just find your mind is wandering at the concerts. A friend of mine who does marketing for a major orchestra put it this way, just last weekend: “My friends sometimes come [she’s young, and her friends, as is typical for younger people who work in classical music, aren’t classical music fans]. And I can always tell whether they really liked it. They don’t know themselves, but I can tell from their reaction.”

    And I noticed something at the opening night of the Met this year. The Madama Butterfly production was really beautiful and gripping, and quite properly got an ovation at the end. But it was a short ovation — only one bow for everyone. I think this was because the singing wasn’t all that strong. So people were impressed and interested, but not excited. If they’d been excited, they would have been screaming.

    In this way, orutine performances do some harm, even if the people hearing them don’t consciously realize they’re routine.

  5. Richard says

    This whole cult of the “Masterpiece” and Composer’s as “gods” is the sort Romantic Era flotsam I would love to see jettisoned. Folks who believe in this hokum should spend eternity listening to Mozart or Mendelsohnn juvenalia. I know that personal tastes vary (I would rather have a root canal without novocaine than listen to anything by Tchaikovsky) I think most listeners should agree that just because a work is written by a great Master, doesn’t mean it’s any good (can people listen to “Wellington’s Victory” without laughing

    or groaning?) Thankfully, this little piece of trash is rarely played, but I would like to ask why it’s performed at all! How about a performance of Hindemith’s “Mathis der Mahler”. Instead of programming early Mozart or Beethoven (1 and 2)symphonies, there are much better works by Varese and Ives, or even Barber and Britten,or even new music. But classical music is still a business, albeit painfully cautious, and he who pays the piper (fusty old reactionary blue hairs) calls the tunes. And familiarity still breeds contempt. But the customer is always right, but not necessarily always bright. As a musician, I’m tired about being cynical about the the art I love. By the way, Teleman was a crappy composer, but sadly, a much greater composer, Bach’s idol, Buxtehude, is unknown to symphony goers (as a matter of fact, much of Bach’s greatest music is not purely orchestral and unknown to most “music-lovers”) There is part of me that thinks that the modern day (really 19th century) symphony has siphoned away way too much money, and has relegated much that is great, to the trash heap.