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
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.)