Signs of the times

While we debate orchestra finances — or re-re-re-redebate them — the classical music world is changing. Changing quite a lot, I’d say.

Charles Lloyd - image from the Met Museum website

For instance: a press release arrived this week, announcing this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York. The first highlight cited is an exploration of birdsong, featuring three Messiaen concerts (Messiaen, of course, since he’s the most prominent composer who loved and used bird songs). Plus preconcert birding tours in in Central Park, and a sound installation at the Park Avenue Armory.

This isn’t traditional Mostly Mozart fare (obviously), though in recent years the festival has moved in precisely this kind of direction. Nor is this typically what classical festivals do. Instead, it’s the kind of thing the art world does, which is to say that classical music is moving here to join the rest of the arts, developing its own kind of contemporary outlook.

The other highlights? A 12-part Schubert focus. Mark Morris and his dance company, doing Dido and Aeneas. (Of course not in traditional style.) And seven world premieres — musical ones, I mean.

Earlier, I got a press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, announcing next year’s season of classical concerts. Or what used to be classical concerts, traditional style. This is a venerable series, going back many decades, and until recently it was straight-down-the-middle classical, about as traditional as classical concerts get. But the museum hired Limor Tomer, a concert and radio producer with a long track record of doing new things, and the big event next year — the one most strongly featured on the press release — will be a year-long residency by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, a composer, multimedia artist, writer, and DJ.

What will he be doing? I’ll quote the press release:

In addition to five major performances, he will host a number of panel discussions, conversations, workshops, and gallery tours for audiences including New York City public school teachers, Met Museum curators and educators, young people, and the general public.  Among the performance events are a newly commissioned work inspired by the upcoming exhibition Photography and the American Civil War; a concert inspired by Oceania’s musical legacy; a performance of DJ Spooky’s original re-score to the Korean film Madame Freedom with a film screening; and a participatory concert using DJ Spooky’s iPhone/iPad app.

This is the core of next year’s concert series. Again, hardly traditional classical stuff.

What else will happen? Patti Smith opens the season, with a salute to Andy Warhol (in conjunction with a show at the museum). Then there’s Tan Dun’s adaptation of The Peony Pavillion, a traditional Chinese opera (in conjunction with a museum show of Chinese garden imagery). A celebration of Charles Lloyd’s 75th birthday. (He’s a jazz sax legend.) Holiday concerts featuring David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. 

And then performances of all the Beethoven string quartets. But clearly, clearly this isn’t a traditional classical series. As if I had to say that again!

And this is just the proverbial iceberg’s tip. There’s much more, not all of it in New York.

One last point. Nobody’s doing these performances to reach out to a wider audience. They’re done for the best possible reason — because the producers of these events like to do these things. It’s a taste they share with their wider audience (meaning not the traditional classical audience, but other people oriented toward the arts, with more contemporary taste).

And since I mentioned Limor, let me also give a shout to Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s Vice President of Programming. She’s done amazing things.

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  1. richard says

    This is interesting, and it bodes well for the future. As I live in flyover country, I am interested in programming differences on both coasts. Your examples are very “East Coast”, and I don’t mean this in a negative way. This is probably just a gut reaction, but I think that programs like this in LA would be quite different.

  2. Kathy Duncan says

    Just to add another facet which may not be new — playing classical music in a popular venue. Open-mic opera performances have been popping up in cabarets, piano bars, and even a sushi restaurant. I have been amazed at how well an all-out impassioned classical aria can work in an intimate setting. These events attract opera fans of course, good singers who are on down time, as well as students and hopefuls. Notably I think Malesha Jessie, soprano, has been successful in creating a warm rapport with an audience when hosting at Cornelia Street Cafe. And Ido Sushi, a West Village sushi bar, hosts regular opera open mics. Opera Cabaret!
    Who woulda thought? Maybe they’ll open public shower stalls next.

  3. TomV says

    In the Midwest, programs like this would be artistic suicide. It’s a bit much to say that “the classical music world is changing.” It may be changing in NYC, but that city is hardly the entire music world, or even representative of the US, even if New Yorkers like to think so.

    • says

      Actually, Tom, I’ve seen enterprising new things in many places. Milwaukee, for instance, has one of the most successful new music series in the US. And in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan there is (or was) a chorus that sang classical music by living composers, and had a larger audience than the local chamber music series. Washington, DC, where I live half the time, has a thriving alternative theater scene, and it seems pretty obvious — also because there’s a large student population — that classical concerts could be a lot more adventurous in DC than they are.

      And I wouldn’t discount the interest of the standard classical audience in new things. I get some pretty scathing comments, often in person, from people you’d never suspect of alternative leanings, who say variants of: “Why don’t orchestras change? It’s about time! We can’t go on hearing the same things over and over again.”

      What NYC might have, in more abundance than elsewhere, is a critical mass of arts managers eager to do new things in classical music. So when it comes time to find someone new, as happened at the Met Museum, some of the likely candidates will be full of fresh ideas.

    • Paul Lindemeyer says

      TomV: “In the Midwest, programs like this would be artistic suicide.”

      Like what exactly, Tom? The Met Museum example is so diverse, it’s hard to pin down what (we) flatlanders would object to/not show up for. Not to mention our own subtle shades of pale diversity. I’m not too far from Des Moines, and I know what plays in MSP might or might not play here, but Omaha, KC, St. Louis are probably another story entirely.

      It might be instructive to step back of the question. Who would be cutting their own throats – museums? programmers? participating artists? And who would be stropping the razor – the aged monied patron class? the morality police concerned about some dance piece that looks a little “fruity”? the general public who won’t take the kids to the museum Sunday afternoon if Beethoven’s playing?

      And Greg, I hope New York is not the only place with a critical mass of innovative ideas. This internet thing is good for more than cat videos, after all. As we are seeing right at your blog, it can open minds. Even ears – !!!

      • says

        Very wise, Paul. Thanks. The example of museums in (sigh) the flyovers (sighing over the term) is very helpful. As far as I know, they show a lot more innovation than classical music does.

    • says

      Tom, it all depends on the tradition of the particular presenting organization. I have to admit, for all of my new commissioning projects with composers of note, there have been many orchestras in the Midwest which have participated in these projects. The same line comes back all the time, from the most elderly audience members: “I have to tell you, I don’t like new music as a rule–but I LOVE this new piece you’ve brought to us!!’ I know conductors who take over orchestras which had previously stuck with the tried and true, and they very wisely and slowly introduce newer works to bring about a sense of direction in the present and future of the orchestra into the 21st century. As I said, it depends on many factors–the audiences who regularly attend–their likes and dislikes, the music director for the orchestra, or the soloists being brought in for recitals etc. I have been told by recital presenters–‘nothing way out, please. If you bring a new work, make sure it has melody! Please!’. I understand what they mean, and abide by their wishes. They want to maintain their subscribing base and add newcomers. Many factors indeed.

  4. Ken nielsen says

    Just about enough to persuade me to move to NY. Or at least visit more often.
    The Metroploitan Museum series looks excellent.
    I wonder if organizations not in the mainstream music business are more likely to be adventurous?

    • says

      Don’t be ridiculous, Tom. I approve all comments, except those that are abusive. And I may have had precisely one abusive comment in the entire history of this blog.

      What I don’t do is approve comments on weekends. Sorry about that, but I need a break. And my baby needs me — six months old yesterday! I’m not going to take time away from him to do work that can wait till Monday.

  5. says

    Undoubtedly, this “crisis” with classical music has been brewing for a long while, and here in the midwest, it has been a long, arduous road to keep our ensemble alive and well, but I have to say, we’re doing remarkably well in this city that loves sports and bbq. I figured out almost from the start that we would have to play more than just
    Bach and Baroque, so for my own adventurous spirit, we have been collaborating with the finest local, national and international artists, scholars, dancers to bring “new life” and relevance to the profound brilliance of Bach, and those he inspired…we brought Dr. Christoph Wolff to town for an ernst lecture-concert that was standing room only, at the library; we have done juxtapositions of Bach & Piazzola w/ legendary bandoneonist Hector del Curto, which was wildly successful; Bach & Jazz with sax great Bobby Watson which was a blast for us–a lot of work; we’ve teamed with modern dancers multiple times to great success in an all-Bach concert, extremely well-received with the visual exhilaration of dancer/choreographer Liz Koeppen of Parsons Dance; we’ll perform Bach, Ysaye and Piazzola with a venerable local modern dance company.
    I think we’ve been doing what you describe as the “rebirth” for a decade, it seems to be working.

  6. Paul Lindemeyer says

    What’s stopping you from a night of Bach and BBQ? I’d recommend Texas style – honest, no-sauce, back-to-basics, Germanic, deceptively simple. :)