Programming the Contemporary
In the spirit of experimentation, I'm trying my hand at that blog standby, the reader poll, to explore a question I raised in yesterday's review.
When I started this blog, several people posted in the comments section to ask if I could devote more coverage to contemporary music. Now, the Crosscurrents festival has put the subject in the spotlight - as well as giving a de facto answer to the commenter who wrote, “And do let's talk about why we need to have our modern music given to us in non-lethal doses of ten-minute token pieces. Cannot we have entire concerts of the stuff?”
“Entire concerts of the stuff” were certainly provided over the last ten days. And as I said in yesterday’s review, I came away from Crosscurrents thinking that putting contemporary music on a separate but equal program may in fact be a better strategy than trying to mix it in with core classical works. I was struck, at the NSO concert on Thursday, by the audience: it wasn’t a full house by any means, but those who were there knew what they were getting, and stayed until the end. It was certainly a contrast to the restlessness that can creep into a hall during those “non-lethal doses of ten-minute token pieces.”
At least a couple of audience members concur. One NSO subscriber commented on my review:
An entire program of contemporary music works much better than sprinkling contemporary music among Brahms, Schumann, or Tchaikovsky. Listening to, say, the Knussen violin concerto between a Rossini overture and a Schubert symphony would be jarring. They are appreciated on different levels. We might be as likely to enjoy a Guns N’ Roses riff.Another listener’s thoughtful comment on today’s review backs up the argument for what one might call segregation.
I imagine this line of thinking will occasion protest from people who would like to see contemporary music emerge as part of the regular concert-going diet. The problem is that the core orchestra audience has basically signed on for music of the past rather than music of the present. (I got a letter last fall from a college student who said he was just starting to love classical music and whose view was that orchestras simply should not play any music written after the 20th century; that wasn’t their purpose. This letter, incidentally, also challenges the kneejerk conventional wisdom that young audiences want contemporary things, but that’s material for another post.)
Classical music is perhaps the only field that thinks it's OK routinely to give audiences something they don't actually want. As my husband says, when you go to the multiplex to see a blockbuster, you don't expect to have to sit through a European art house film first. When I go to a Bang on a Can event, I might be taken aback if someone started playing a Haydn quartet (even though I like Haydn quartets). And someone who's bought tickets for Bob Dylan wouldn't necessarily want to hear Lou Reed instead (a point effectively raised by one disgruntled WPAS ticket-buyer who wrote me to express her unhappiness at receiving no advance warning that she was going to hear Marc-André Hamelin rather than Krystian Zimerman, who canceled his DC concert in April).
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