Orchestras as museums?

At a retreat of the Orchestra Forum program of the Mellon Foundation — at which I learned a lot  — I got into two discussions about how orchestras might function as museums.

Or, to be more honest, i made, in private conversation, a few provocative remarks, one of which I think is true beyond any chance of contradiction — that none of the culturally central musical developments of the past 50 years happened in the orchestra world, or have even been reflected there.


But that’s not the point! said passionate and honest people I have both affection and respect for. Orchestras are like museums. They display the art of the past. Or as one of these people got in my face (delightfully) and demanded to know, “What’s the difference between Brahms and Rembrandt?”

But (and what follows is more or less what I e-mailed him, since we never got a chance to finish the discussion), the important difference is about how Brahms and Rembrandt function in the concert and museum worlds. Though one general point to make — my wife makes it all the time, and Lawrence Kramer made it memorably in a piece in the New York Times Magazine — museums are far more contemporary, as institutions, than orchestras even dream of being.

Here’s what I e-mailed — three big differences (at least as I see them) between museums and concert halls.


First, the museum

world is way ahead of the concert world, chronologically. Or I could say that

their center of chronological gravity lies about a century later. Major 20th

century and postwar painters – Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Gorky, Pollock, Rothko

— are core classics in museums. A Jackson Pollock show gets lines

around the block. Museums of modern and contemporary art (MOMA, LACMA) are

major institutions, on a par with museums that show classics from past centuries. The

museum world, too, has kept up with developments in outside culture. In the

last 50 years, elements of popular culture have been recognized as visual art –

for instance, film, graphic design, fashion. All are represented in major museums. The Met

has had a costume collection for years (aka fashion). That costume collection just opened a

superheroes show. That might be the equivalent of an orchestra mounting a heavy

metal weekend – which would actually happen, if orchestras functioned the way

real museums do.


Second, a Rembrandt

painting hangs on the wall, looking like it comes from the past. A Brahms

symphony, played in the concert hall, isn’t identifiable as music from the

past, because it’s so constantly repeated. It sounds like the concert-hall

cultural norm, which in fact it is. That means we can’t actually hear it. Key elements of it are lost to us, which doesn’t happen nearly so easily with



Finally, Rembrandt

just hangs in the museum, costing nothing (except the museum’s general

expenses), demanding nothing, requiring nothing. Brahms has to be enacted over

and over again at great expense by large numbers of musicians, who work together, drawing on their years of training and experience to act out Brahms’s music. The audience, likewise, sits

in silence for long periods, worshipping these reenactments. It’s as if the museum hired 100

painters every day to copy Rembrandt works. I know this isn’t at all a precise

analogy, but it has this value — it gives us at least a very rough measure of where the two institutions put their energy, and their creative effort. In the visual arts world, the energy goes into creating new work, and creating new understandings of old work

(which is seen, as I said before, as part of the past). In concert halls, the

vast bulk of creative effort goes into recreating old music, the same pieces

over and over again. It’s no wonder that the concert world turns away from contemporary culture, or that the visual arts world has more

intelligence, more imagination, and more contemporary relevance. If the

classical music world treated the performance of music of the past as something

extraordinary – how strange! We’re putting all this energy into recreating the

19th century! – then the focus on the past might be more invigorating.


If anyone wants to see

what classical music is like when it functions like a real museum, listen to

the “Evening Music” show on WNYC, New York’s public radio station — 7 PM, Mondays through Thursdays, when

Terrance McKnight is the host. (Not that I haven’t said this before.)

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  1. says

    I don’t really disagree with your premise that orchestras do often treat works as museum pieces. I do however believe there is a flaw in your discussion and analysis.

    No two orchestras play the same pieces in the same manner. The moments are different, the rooms, the players, the interpretations, the conductors. Aurally, they are not the same. There is a canon of perspective and a range, but orchestras can’t perform the perfect performance because it doesn’t exist. Each playing is unique and special and based on a balanced exploration using the score, performers and environments as inputs. This is very different from the idea of copying a painting. If music was simply about displaying reference performances, then your analogy to “copyists” might hold up. Musician are limited by the impermanence of their artistry. A painter creates once and it is viewed forever, or as long as it can be preserved. This is not the case with great classical music performances. Audiences may not appreciate the value. They may not recognize the uniqueness of their personal perspective and experience, but they can be taught with the right approach.

    Well, I said that the analogy was imprecise! I was trying to draw attention to the amount of energy involved in preserving/recreating the past, as opposed to doing something more strongly embedded in current life.

    But in response to your thoughtful comment — how different, really, are all the performances of standard masterworks? If, as you suggest, the differences between them can be offered as a reason for all those performances to exist, are the differences (in practice) really all that great? I remember one musician in a major orchestra shaking his head after a performance of a Tchaikovsky Symphony with a guest conductor (someone very well known), and telling me that no one should conduct standard repertoire who didn’t have something unique to offer in the music. I’d support that view. I understand the theory involved in what you’re saying, but in practice I’d like to see orchestras (and other classical music performing groups) hesitate before programming a standard work, and asking themselves how their performance is going to offer something distinct, notable, worth paying attention to. Note that classical music institutions virtually never talk about such things in their publicity, possibly because the answer might in fact be embarrassing.

  2. AR says

    It is more precise to consider orchestras temples to great music. Old temples, such as the Parthenon or Notre-Dame, have a place in our life and so should traditional orchestras. The idea of major orchestras changing the concert format to include indie rock while relegating masterworks to the margins fills me with the same horror as watching the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

    AR, please comment often! I find what you say very illuminating.

    In reply to your thoughts here, I might ask if any other art form maintains temples to its art. When an O’Neill revival plays on Broadway, does the theater it’s in become a temple?

    And do the Parthenon and Notre Dame really function now as temples? Well, there still are church services in Notre Dame, but obviously that’s not the main function of the building. Catholic masses in that area could be offered far more cheaply in a simpler structure. I think Notre Dame and the Parthenon and similar structures are maintained as history, and as art in their own right.

    Finally, when you talk about orchestras doing alternative rock while “relegating masterworks to the margins,” what exactly do you mean? Where has this been done? When the LA Philharmonic did their show with Grizzly Bear in March — without cutting back on its classical performances — was it destroying Buddhas? Is WNYC in New York destroying Buddhas when it makes its “Evening Music” broadcast mostly works by living composers, so that older masterworks play a smaller part? Please clarify!

  3. David Cavlovic says

    Maybe an old-fashioned museum is not such a bad idea. I know a few conductors, and a musician or two, who deserve to be encased in a glass presentation box.

  4. robert berger says

    Greg,I’m sorry,but you have totally mis-

    represented our orchestras with your one-sided,

    specious,and misleading claims.

    First of all,there is absolutely no lack of new music today at concerts.Composers such as


    Tan Dun,Bolcom,Corigliano,and many others have

    been widely performed.

    Yes,certain standard works by Beethoven,

    Brahms,Tchaikovsky etc are still played,

    but many interesting long-neglected works from

    the past have been revived.In fact,there is

    greater diversity of repertory than ever before.

    The often-quoted statement that”all or most

    music was new at concerts” ignores certain

    facts. When Haydn,Mozart and Beethoven were alive,the orchestra as we know it was a

    relatively new thing.They simply did not have

    the enormous accumulation of repertory we have today.Concerts happened much less frequently

    than today;there were nowhere near as many


    You make it sound as though it were no

    longer worth going to concerts today.

    I maintain that it has never been more worthwhile.

    Before 1800, it wasn’t uncommon for people to deride the music of past generations. It was considered old-fashioned, stuffy, no longer of any interest. After 1800 (this is very well documented) performance of music from the past became a positive value, an artistic imperative. What i’m offering here is very rough history — in England, for instance, performing music of the past became established before 1800, as opposed to the time frame in Europe. But there was a shift in attitude, as well as a change in the kind of institutions that existed. And in fact orchestras — as ongoing institutions — were created in response to a desire to perform music of the past. So while it’s plausible (if you don’t actually study the history) to take the view Robert takes here, and believe that older repertoire wasn’t performed simply because there weren’t institutions to perform, it actually turns the real history upside down. And in any case opera houses did exist as ongoing institutions, and could have performed past repertoire if anyone had wanted it.

  5. Steve McKay says

    It sounds to me like your idea of a museum is more like the MOMA, as opposed to the Natural History Museum. One museum displays modern art and the other museum displays archival materials. Orchestras can serve both functions – reviving works from the past and performing new works. There are many different types of orchestras, just like there are many types of museums and your comparison does not take that into account.

    You are right about the bit about the 100 painters copying Rembrandts – it is not a precise analogy. Displaying a painting is more like listening to a record.

    Well, I was talking about art museums, not natural history museums. But these days very few museums, as far as I know, simply display archival material. A natural history museum might have a show that highlights new scientific findings.

    And as for MOMA, my point first was that museums of contemporary art are considered major institutions, in contrast to musical groups that specialize in contemporary music. And secondly I was saying that even museums that mainly house older work will do contemporary shows. Like the superhero show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Or go to the Met Museum website. Each day, it shows a “featured work of art.” Today it’s an Ansel Adams photograph, taken in 1950 and printed in 1974. I’d love to see an orchestra website that gave comparable prominence to anything so recent. And look at the Met website page that announces their three current featured shows. Two are of contemporary art. And we’re not talking here of classics like de Kooning..No, what they’re advertising is Jeff Koons and their superhero costume show.

    As for the analogy: I don’t think that looking at a Rembrandt is like listening to a record. You look at the painting, and pay as much or as little attention as you like. You can walk away after 30 seconds. But you can’t encounter a classical piece — not if you take it seriously — without sitting through its entire length. Repeated listening can help create a fixation on these pieces — simply as a reaction to the time spent with them — that isn’t nearly as likely to happen with a painting.

    As for my analogy

  6. Ken Berv says

    Jeff’s comment above about the differences between performances touches slightly on the error of Greg’s ways: the written score of a musical composition is static in the way any painting is static, once finished (unless revised by the painter or composer) it is complete. But the score is a blueprint for the work of art, perhaps like a Renaissance master’s cartoon of a fresco, or a painter’s preliminary drawings.

    However, musical performance lives in time, it is an art which exists only as time passes, and therefore, in a manner of speaking, is not present unless listened to-so it’s survival and very existence depends on being heard and repetition.

    This is quite different from any visual art, unless the so-called “performance” art is included, in which case repetition is again necessary for the art form to exist.

    It seems as though, then, there is an inherent logical fallacy in the analogy comparing museums to symphonic repertoire. It may indeed be so that the “vitality” of classical music is quite different from the days of composers, like Mozart and Beethoven, who improvised, played their own cadenzas, and were actively involved in their own performances. The issue of repetition and lack of performance of contemporary compoers would be better served by foregoing the invalid “museum” analogy.

    Of course there are differences. What I’m saying, though, is that the differences — however you analyze their nature — have consequences. And one consequence, I think, is that the mainstream classical audience gets far more fixated on standard masterworks than the art audience does on classic paintings.

  7. Suzanne Derringer says

    This is part of the larger context of the social and political role of what is now called “classical” music in contemporary society…Your point about music, before c.1800 being primariliy the music of the day, is well taken. Rossini, late in life, dismissed his earlier operas as things that once were fashionable…but no longer interesting. The world had moved on. Remember that nobody was listening to Bach until Mendelssohn “rediscovered” him and produced a grand enormous Victorian choral event which would have surprised Bach, no doubt. My feeling is that the whole 19th century was one long tension between the forces of industrialization and “liberal” politics vs. the opposing force, nostalgic Romanticism, trying in vain to hold on to an old way of life that was quickly becoming obsolete. (From the publication of the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn at the beginning of the 19th century, to Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs at the end, as one quick marker.) From roughly 1900 on, the old world was really breaking apart – WWI was the end of it – and most of the “art” music of the 20th century was an attempt to express the awful new realities.

    Orchestra as museum? You bet – and as you say, not even as relevant to contemporary life as museums have become. I laugh at pretentious “early music” groups advertising their concerts on “period instruments”. ALL orchestral instruments are “period instruments” – there’s been nothing new in the past couple of hundred years, really.

    Thanks, Suzanne. I agree about romanticism. It’s easy to see, in your analysis, why there’s so much in romantic art that’s unsettled, isolated, expecting tragedy.

    I think I’d give the period instrument people a pass, though. I can see their point — the instruments in the modern orchestra are “period” in the sense that you suggest, but also quite modern compared to the music they now play. But mainly I’ll give the period instrument people a pass because their performances can be wildly lively, suggesting that they’ve tapped into something that — despite the ways they talk — aren’t historical or museum-like.

  8. Matt says

    To extend your last point about the cost of works, the opportunity cost of choosing newer, riskier works is also much more considerable for orchestras.

    If a museum chooses to acquire a few works by an unknown artist, or even puts on an unpopular exhibition, it’s only a fraction of what’s on display. Museum-go’ers can just pass by to find something they’re more interested in.

    If an orchestra chooses to mount works by an unknown or unpopular composer, the audience still has to sit though the piece (assuming an audience will come in the first place… which isn’t a small assumption).

    Therefore, museums have an easier time marginalizing risk, which is also where the real rewards come from (most recently, the Met Opera), not to mention, a fundamental of part of the spirit of art.

    This isn’t just a problem in the arts. The private sector is struggling with the issue of risk too. Google is a great example. In an interview with their CEO, he said they spend 70% of their resources on ‘old stand-bys’, 20% on related projects and only 10% on very risky projects, but find that their new exciting stuff comes from that 10%.

    In other words, orchestras might do better to heed the article’s subtite: “Breakthrough ideas are around the corner. But most of us are failing to take a chance on them.”

  9. gary panetta says

    The comments here all sound intriguing, but I’m confused about one thing.

    Suppose I’m going to program Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on my orchestral season next year. I gather from the comments above that I should make sure I have “a distinct, notable, worth paying attention to” ideas about performing this very standard piece of classical music. Other than just really trying to do a good job of it (and making sure audiences haven’t just heard the piece recently with the same orchetra) what is a conductor supposed to do? What constitutes a distinctive performance of Beethoven’s Fifth? I mean, are the musicians supposed to use kazoos or something? I realize that a certain amount of subjectivity enters into performing a classical piece — but this freedom doesn’t compare with the freedom musicians have in other kinds of music.

    Here’s another (related thought): As a lay listener at classical concerts, I’m often annoyed with the program notes. Why don’t conductors write their own program notes explaining why they have chosen these particular pieces and this particular order? I’ve been told that the music speaks for itself. But in the dramatic arts, where people actually do speak instead of mutely playing violins, the director never hesitates to tell me her thoughts about “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or whatever theatrical warhorse is being staged.

    Very good thought about the program notes, Gary. I think you should go with it — really make the notes something like what you’re talking about here. You could also involve the musicians, have them say what they think about the piece.

    But, speaking very honestly, your comments on Beethoven’s 5th bother me. If this is all you can offer — a professional rendition of a work whose meaning and contours seem, if we’re to believe you, thoroughly known — then why play it? I’d rather you didn’t.

    So let me give you some suggestions, if not about how to perform the piece, then about what differences between performances might exist. First, and most obviously, you might look at some performances that are very different from the current norm. Maybe Stokowski, from generations ago, lingering (as I remember) over phrases in the slow movement, giving each an individual, highly personal treatment. Or Mikhail Pletnev, from his recent recording of all the Beethoven symphonies. I’ll get in a minute to the most remarkable thing (at least for me) about the way he does the Fifth, but you might listen to how flexible his tempi are in the first movement of the Eroica, and how strong a narrative he creates from the music. I gather, listening to him, that one thing very personal about his understanding of the piece is a sense of uncertainty at the end of the exposition, at the end of the development, and just before the coda. That uncertainty pays off wonderfully the first and second times, by which I mean the uncertainty at the end of the exposition, leading the first time into the exposition repeat, and the second time — and somehow it sounds like a great surprise, a great expanson of what’s gone before — leading into the further uncertainties of the development.

    Or, in the Ninth, listen to the unabashed joy Pletnev and his musicians bring to the first statements of the Ode to Joy tune. Could you do anything like htat in the Fifth? Maybe, most obviously, when the sunburst of the finale bursts out. Can you get beyond the routine of even the best normal performances, and make it glow from within?

    Or listen to what Pletnev does with the opening of the second theme in the recapitulation in the first movement. The opening notes, so decisive in the horn in the version of the passage that shows up in the exposition, normally sound feeble in the recapitulation, now played on the bassoon. I’ve never heard a satisfying solution to that. Doubling the bassoon, or even using four of them (as I believe Carlos Kleiber does) only makes the sound more awkward (at least for me).

    Pletnev’s solution is wonderfully radical. He lets the bassoon statement be different from the horn statement in the exposition — quieter, far less decisive, just as the nature of the instruments should dictate. And to make that work, he builds a nest of quiet both before and after the bassoon comes in.

    Another moment to think about: the oboe cadenza in the first movement. How should that sound? (And a related question, rather radical in today’s climate, but not in Beethoven’s time: Should the oboist play the cadenza strictly as written, or should she ornament it?) There’s a video about a New World Symphony performance of it, filmed by my friends Janet Shapiro and Philip Byrd. The principal oboist is interviewed in the first part of the film, and she talks about the cadenza. We see her practicing it alone. The film then ends with the full performance of the piece, and when that cadenza comes, instead of seeing the oboist in the middle of the orchestra, we see her alone in her studio, as she was when she practiced the passage. That suggests one interpretation of the cadenza, that it’s meditative, even lonely. Would you want it to sound that way in your performance? And if not, how should it sound? Or is that something you’d want to work out with the oboist, the only goal being to get something personal, that spoke for both of you?

    Or consider the famous set-piece in E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, in which members of a family (all young) and their friends are at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. One of them tells herself a story about goblins. That the goblins, evil little things, show up in the third movement, and then are banished in the fourth. But then — in the famous passage where, in the middle of the last movement, music from the third movement returns — they come back again! The moral drawn from this is that you can banish goblins, or evil, but it might always return — and that this shows how powerful Beethoven is, and how deep his understanding of life can be. Would you want to play these passages with Forster’s goblins in mind, or else thinking of your own image of trouble or dismay? This might mean making the return of the music very stark and shocking — something you might want to do in any case, to convey what the passage must have meant to Beethoven and his audience, since in those days disrupting the normal texture of a symphony was practically unknown.

    Finally, you might find your own meaning — or your own narrative — for the symphony. What if you thought the triumph in the final movement was unconvincing? Or the coda of the first movement too insistent, as if Beethoven was protesting too much?

    To give you an example of how someone else thought about a Beethoven piece, I’ll paraphrase what one of my Juilliard students said last week about Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2 string quartet. I ask my students to make presentations about pieces they play, presentations that should be entirely personal, and full of feeling. This violinist picked this quartet, which he’d played a number of times, and came up with the following scenario. First movement: Beethoven emerges, for the first time in his oeuvre, as a full-fledged neurotic, a man torn by trouble. Second movement: state of grace, transcending any trouble. Third movement: cynicism, Beethoven answering his patron’s request for a Russian folktune, by turning the tune almost into a parody, making it sound absolutely trivial. Finale: Beethoven in an unspired mood, just churning out the notes. I don’t say everyone has to agree with this, but it’s a very personal description of the piece, which could generate a very personal performance. (And I should add that this violinist went into far more detail than I’ve tried to render here.)

  10. says

    In response to Matt’s comments about the disparate amount of risk between a museum’s acquisition of a new work vs. an orchestra’s, I think you’re ignoring how the programming of a concert can (and is) be used to minimize that risk. If the artistic staff is doing their job properly, they are looking at all pieces under consideration in relation to one another and programming them in a way that compliments them all.

    Osmo Vanska has contemporary works on every concert he conducts with the Minnesota Orchestra. He and his staff have been very successful in communicating how the old and the new work together to enrich the entire concert experience (really, they’ve done a great job in their advertising & PR this past year). I’m sure other orchestras have and are trying some of the same tatics used here, but I don’t know if others have had the same level of success the MN Orchestra has had.

    New music is not something for the audience to endure until the next golden oldie. I think if more orchestras would sincerely embrace new music in the way Minnesota has, perhaps listening to it(AND performing it) wouldn’t be characterized as such a burden.

  11. says

    Thanks for your great blog, Greg. I find it consistently interesting and provocative, and when I disagree, I have to admit I often find it difficult to mount opposing arguments.

    Still, I think some of your comments here are mixing up what’s important about newness and different-ness. I agree that for connoisseurs it’s appealing to hear Beethoven’s 5th in a new light, but the fact is that it’s only a very small percentage of the public that can be said to know even Beethoven’s 5th well enough to notice those differences. That’s not to say they might not notice whether or not the musicians are musically engaged, but one reason music like this has survived is that it’s worth hearing again and again, even when the performance doesn’t change that much. I have recordings of all sorts of standard rep that I’ve listened to over and over with great satisfaction. The music is worth it, and it’s even more worth it heard live. You say, “If this is all you can offer — a professional rendition of a work whose meaning and contours seem, if we’re to believe you, thoroughly known — then why play it?” I say, because it’s worth playing! It’s worth hearing again and again as a live performance, and not just because it was revolutionary in its time. That’s why the 5th has transcended its historical moment, and many people still find it thrilling to hear a group of performers play it well yet again.

    I recently heard a stunning live performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd; the orchestra was a very average community-level group, but the pianist was superb and in the context of the community in which it was heard, the event was a thrilling success for the audience. Let’s say (I’m totally guessing) that 30 such community level performances of Rach 3 were heard across the country this year. (I doubt the pianist would have been this good in each case, but let’s put that aside.) Or 60? So what? It’s not like they’re all playing for the same audience. An orchestra performs for its community, not nationwide statistics, and I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of musical performance as a local phenomenon – even if the “local” orchestra is world class.

    But the funny thing is that if you’re interested in attracting new audiences, this idea that Beethoven’s 5th is old hat is silly. It’s NOT overly familiar to new audiences, even if they may recognize the theme. Also, given how often you cite the pop/indie worlds, you don’t seem to talk a lot about how fans of those artists love to listen to the same songs over and over. In fact, I think most fans are disappointed if they don’t get a good dose of the familiar from pop artists at a concert. People like to recognize things; it’s one of the great satisfactions of listening. New audiences are probably more likely to find Beethoven’s 5th appealing (due both to its whiff of familiarity and its time-tested dramatic power) than something newly written. I know this doesn’t seem fair to contemporary composers, but that alone doesn’t make it not true.

    I realize this may still create a problem for the connoisseurs, but that’s a different issue than the new audiences you seem most interested in. By the way, I would definitely qualify as a connoisseur, but due to work, family, budget, etc. I don’t get to attend nearly as many live, professional concerts as I’d like to; so, although I know Beethoven’s 5th and the Rach 3 backwards and forwards, I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to hear them played by the local Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I wouldn’t really require a distinctly new point-of-view to be thrilled by them. Perhaps if I attended the symphony more often, I’d feel differently. Also, as a performer, I can tell you that I can play certain works over and over and over and over and not get remotely tired of them. In fact, practicing requires that I do that, and it’s one of the great joys of being a musician. (By the way, I like lots of your ideas about new ways to think about Beethoven, and I think performers would do well to think more outside the box in a variety of ways. I think you’ve made lots of good points on this blog about ways of thinking more creatively as performers, and by “creatively,” I especially mean encouraging performers to think more like composers.) (I’m sorry this is so long.)

    Michael, I’m grateful to you for these thoughts. I don’t care how long you write (especially since I’m not exactly short-winded myself). But you’ve raised so many important issues, and put them in such a pointed and sympathetic way — I mean sympathetic to all points of view, though of course you have your own. You’ve helped me think about these issues.

    Of course you’re right about pop fans — they want to hear familiar hits. I remember in the early ’90s going to Carnegie Hall (!) to see John Mellencamp do a special show. Tickets weren’t onsale; I’ve forgotten how they were distributed, maybe through radio promotions. Anyhow, the hall was full of fans. Mellencamp had a new album out, and he offered the audience a deal. If they’d listen to him sing the entire new album, he’d follow that by singing all his familiar hits.

    As for repeated performances of standard classical works, I should confess my bias. I’ve heard many of them so many times that I almost shudder if I’m at a concert and find them on the program .Not that I won’t wake up if the performance is really extraordinary — I’m a very naive listener that way. Give me something that makes me happy, and I’m not just happy; I’m overjoyed.

    But I think that more is going on in standard classical concerts than mere repetition of familiar stuff. That is, I completely take your point about people hearing familiar pieces all over the country (all over the world), and being really happy (no matter what I might have felt, if I’d been at the performance). But what’s the nature of this happiness? What are these people experiencing? Are they opening their minds and hearts, or are they being lulled and comforted? What exactly is conveyed by performances of old masterworks?

    I’m going to make some posts on this issue, starting with one about a vocal recital I went to last night. My bottom line is that I think there’s something very limiting about the whole enterprise, regardless of whether any part of any audience has heard any piece before. We’re encountering a closed world here, with not much chance of surprise, and not much chance for people who go into concerts coming out with a different view of the world around them.

    This is a big issue, I know, so I won’t try to say more about it right now. I’ll save it for later posts. But if anyone wants to take a shot of their own, i’d be grateful. What exactly goes on, when an audience hears Rach 3? What’s their inner experience, in thoughts and emotions? Where does it fit in the experience of the world we’re all having now, in our different ways? One model for this discussion might be Greil Marcus’s brilliant discussion — in his book “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” — of how Joan Baez’s performances of traditional folk songs seemed revolutionary to people (like me) who heard her when she was starting out, and how these performances of old material helped create a mood for change. I’m not saying that traditional classical performances will have this effect — much the opposite, I’d think — but rather that Greil’s analysis is a model of how such things could be discussed.

  12. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks for yet another fascinating discussion. I would like to briefly echo the thoughts of the conductor who would like to see a change in approach to program notes. A personal set of reflections about the music from the conductor (and musicians) about the music would be so much nicer than what we currently get. At a recent performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony, for example, I looked through the program in vain for a single observation about why the music was good or interesting to hear. The notes were entirely consumed with talking about the unfortunate love life of the composer. Interesting, no doubt, but was there nothing to say about the symphony itself? Why was it being performed if the actual music was beneath comment? Or perhaps I is so well known that there was nothing more to say. Maybe this also hints at another way to address the orchestra as museum question. For me, music is much more engaging if I get the sense that the musicians performing it (and the conductor) really love and admire what they are playing. So the thing to avoid, in a way, would be a standardized rubric for programming, etc. Why not let each orchestra truly develop its own flavor and personality? I sometimes get the feeling that certain works are presented out of a sense of duty rather than love and or/interest. It seems to me that musical art is much fresher if the personality, taste, and enthusiasms of the actual people involved in presenting and performing the music serve as the guideline for what’s performed. That way, both old and new music is likely to be on the program in a given season—and not just for strategic reasons (attracting young people or satisfying the more traditional crowd).

    I once sat in on a programming session for a Fourth of July concert by a major orchestra. This was a light-hearted discussion, over sandwiches in the orchestra’s offices. When any piece was named, the only criteria for choosing it were: (1) Do we have the music in our library? (So we won’t have to pay to rent it.) (2) Did we play the piece last year? (If so, we shouldn’t repeat it.)

    Programming discussions for more central concerts — which I’ve also been part of, or observed — just take for granted that most of the pieces will be standard repertory. And if new pieces are contemplated, one issue that’s always going to come up –again at a major orchestra — is: “Since we don’t have this music in our library, and we’ll have to pay a royalty, how much will this cost us?”

    I’m not criticizing orchestras for working in these ways. They’re limited by their reality.

    As for program notes, one of the worst I ever saw was a couple of lines about one of the Haydn Op. 20 string quartets, in a short note that discussed the program for an entire concert in a single longish paragraph. The note said (I’m paraphrasing) that the quartets Haydn wrote before Op. 20 were relatively primitive, and the ones he wrote later were fully mature, so the Op. 20 pieces should be regarded as transitional. Very interesting, maybe, if you’re thinking about Haydn’s development, but notice that there’s not a single word about any pleasure anyone might get from hearing the Op. 20 pieces, which are (of course) quite wonderful.

  13. says

    Here’s a quick summary of my previous and lengthy comment. 1) Beethoven’s 5th is still “new music” to most people. 2) Beethoven’s 5th is great not just because it was so “new” when it was written, but because it rewards repeated listening, even when it no longer sound “new.”

    I guess a summary of my reactions (and it’s helpful to make it; thanks, Michael, for inspiring me) would be:

    1. Performances of Beethoven’s Fifth don’t feel new, even if people haven’t heard the piece, because one inner, unspoken, but unmistakable message in the performance will most likely be that this piece is a beloved classic, unlikely to arouse new thoughts of any kind.

    2. We need to specify exactly what those rewards from repeated listening might be. What are we thinking and feeling as we repeatedly hear the piece?

  14. says

    We need to all remember that this is the worst program note ever written:


    From the baffling opening line – “Mozart was a miracle of creativity that walked like a man” – to the insane first-paragraph digression into Schubert, to the astonishing pedantry of the subsequent discussion, and finally to the weirdly condescending last line – “The end is an exultant C-major blaze of trumpets and drums, the sort of gesture that may be expected in such a work, but one whose effect is no less stunning for all that” – it gives two unspoken messages to the reader: 1) The Jupiter is a forbiddingly great work, so forbidding that 2) I’m not going to bother to write about it in an interesting way.

    I feel strongly about this.

    I feel strongly about it, too. And I think the message might be even worse. Something like, “This is way beyond the understanding of mere mortals like you, though we on the inside know exactly why you should worship this music.” Keeps the audience subservient, and ideally the entire culture, so that classical music can reign unchallenged.