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Xi'an: Fischer and the Warriors

An officer from the terra-cotta army of Qin Shi Huang. (Tor Svensson)

The day after leading the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert attended by the political elite in the dusty mid-sized city of Xi’an, China – “mid-sized,” in China, meaning 8.4 million or so – Ivan Fischer, the NSO's interim chief conductor, is surveying a mound of terra cotta shards in a hangar-like enclosure about an hour from town.

“They should leave them like that,” he says.

The terra cotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang are one of the world’s marvels. What they don’t tell you before you come is that the warriors, when first excavated (several thousand of them since they were discovered in 1974), are lying in a heap of fragments that have to be painstakingly reassembled. Is such reconstruction authentic? Is what we are seeing “real?” It’s this that Fischer is addressing when he stands by one of the excavation sites and says it might be preferable to let people see the warriors as they actually exist when they are found, before they are rebuilt.

And it’s this kind of question that he’s addressing when he talks about ways to present works of the past so that they come alive for audiences of the present.

“I am very concerned about the future of the symphony orchestra,” he says, sitting in a little coffee house on the hot, dry grounds of the excavation site, while the orchestra members mill around exploring the three huge pits where the warriors are found.
(read more after the jump)

Orchestras, Fischer says, are too inflexible. The instrumentation hasn't fundamentally changed for 120 years. But in seeking a radical new model, he seems to be looking more to the old than the new. He doesn't talk much about new music, though he observes that Daniel Kellogg's piece "Western Skies," which the NSO is playing on several of its Asia programs, may have been a fitting piece to bring to China since it is about sound and color rather than narrative or dramatic development: good, perhaps, for a new audience who may be listening more to what the music sounds like than to what it is doing. And he mentions some of the new new-music ensembles that combine different musical influences with the classical tradition.

At Xi'an, NSO members and administrators made plenty of jokes about a terra cotta orchestra. (Tor Svensson)

As far as his own concrete ideas for change: "I am not ready yet to say," he says. But what he talks about with most animation are early-music ensembles, like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who will join him next season in New York for half of a Beethoven cycle (the Budapest Festival Orchestra will play the other half). He's intrigued by the idea that a conventional symphony orchestra may be ready, conceptually, to join forces with an early music group in some way (as he mentioned in an earlier interview). And he observes that early-music performance has come so far that, where once performers were primarily concerned with returning to some idea of what the composer originally heard or intended, many performers are now more concerned about establishing a communicative relationship with the audience -- which may actually be closer to the spirit of how the music originally functioned.

What, after all, is "authentic"? What is this music trying to do? The warriors of Xi'an have it both ways. Hundreds of them stand reconstructed, facing a visitor with implacable serenity, every face individually shaped; hundreds more lie in pieces in the pits in just the form that they were found. There isn't a single right answer. But Ivan Fischer appears keenly aware, at the moment, of the complexity of the jigsaw puzzle of possibilities that faces him.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 16, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  international , interviews  
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Anne, thanks for your many insights on this trip so far. And particularly for reporting on Maestro Fischer's insights as well.

Posted by: mcooley | June 16, 2009 6:56 AM | Report abuse

Amen to that. It is so refreshing to read reviews that don't wallow in adjectives or promote an ideological agenda, and from which one can learn something regardless of one's outlook! Anne is far and away the most sane critic I have read in a long time. Long may she write!
Fischer's concern for the future of the symphony orchestra has two sides to it. One is concern for continuing employment and consequent links to the food chain of people in the music business (performers and composers). The other is concern for the civilizing power of music in a world that increasingly regards civilization as optional and excellence as an entitlement instead of an accomplishment. I love the idea of Anne's reviews appearing in, or continuing into, the Kid's Post section of the Post. It happens to be probably the section of the Post with the greatest journalistic integrity. One of today's items directly addresses the problem Fischer is trying to solve:

"Could You Identify This Instrument?

-- Would you know the sound of a clarinet if you heard it? According to a new assessment test on music and art, half the eighth-graders asked correctly identified the clarinet as the first instrument heard in "Rhapsody in Blue" by composer George Gershwin.

The tests were given last year to nearly 8,000 students from 260 public and private schools. The last time students were tested in music and arts was in 1997.

Students were asked to do such tasks as identify an octave interval or the correct time signature in a piece of music. In visual arts, they were asked to identify paintings by 20th-century Western artists or Renaissance masters.

The results were about the same as on the test given 12 years ago. Girls did better than boys, as they did in 1997.

Experts say testing such as this is an important way to measure if music and art education is being reduced as schools put more emphasis on preparing kids for standardized tests in reading and math."

There is the difference between schooling and education.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 16, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

“The terra cotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang are one of the
world’s marvels.” (Anne Midgette)

I think that one way to present works of the past so that they come alive for audiences of the present is to let readers of the Washington Post know that the terra cotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi will be on display at Washington’s National Geographic Society from November 19 to March 31, 2010; and that they are currently on display in the Los Angeles area and will be on display in Houston before Washington.

I don’t think that mentioning this would have detracted from your article’s theme of Ivan Fischer and the interpretation of works from the past.

Here goes:


Posted by: snaketime1 | June 16, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I, for one, am super-psyched about the terra cotta warriors coming to town.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 17, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Just a thought:

"And he observes that early-music performance has come so far that, where once performers were primarily concerned with returning to some idea of what the composer originally heard or intended, many performers are now more concerned about establishing a communicative relationship with the audience -- which may actually be closer to the spirit of how the music originally functioned."

This is a very loaded proposition: didn't the Berlin Philharmonic, under that old curmudgeon Furtwangler, communicate fine with its audiences? It must have--they came out in the pouring rain to bombed out concert venues, to listen to it play in the dark days of WWII. Try finding an audience that dedicated anywhere today!

What does "establishing a communicative relationship with the audience" actually mean? Sounds nice, but marketers are going to interpret that as "put them in jeans and T-shirts and make them play NIN music." HIPsters are going to interpret that to mean "Go back to the original intentions of the score as the composer wrote it, before it was encrusted with romanticisms in the 19th and early 20th centuries." The blue-haired ladies with a copy of Amadeus on their video shelves are going to say, "Play more Moe-zart! He raises your IQ, it's a scientific fact!" Pronouncements like this are useless.

It's also interesting to wonder why would it be, even if "more communicativeness," whatever that means, were true in the past, that this is necessarily the better way, or the right way to go. In the past lots of things were done differently than now, but returning to them wouldn't necessarily be seen as a benefit. Would you really want reading and writing taught today the way it was taught 200 years ago--copy a sentence from your copybook 100 times while the teacher observes your penmanship (or quillmanship) ready to crack your knuckles with a ruler if you got sloppy?

Posted by: johngrabowski08 | June 18, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

johngrabowski08: Fischer was specifically talking about the period instrument/early music movement. What I believe he meant is that 30 years ago, this movement placed a premium on being faithful to the composer’s alleged intentions above all else, and the audience be damned; while today period-instrument players are more concerned with creating a living, vivid performance.
There was no implication that other performers of the past weren't communicative. That's a whole different discussion, but I personally would say that the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwaengler communicated far better with its audiences than, say, the New York Philharmonic under Maazel today.
Your final point about the absurdity of going back to the mores of 300 years ago is right on; it's exactly why the early-music movement in general moved away from its erstwhile rigidity. (See the book “The End of Early Music” by Bruce Haynes for an opinionated discussion of the evolution of the period-instruments movement; he ends up calling for new works to be written in period-instrument style. Fischer says he’s conducted one of these works.)

Posted by: MidgetteA | June 18, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

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