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Night at the Museum

Reading a recent Los Angeles Times article about musical events taking place in museums, I was struck that this was still, in 2010, worthy of note. Museums have long been a tried-and-true location for musical performance: contemporary happenings in a gallery or more conventional concerts that happen to take place in a museum auditorium. Yes, the events described in the piece specifically involve visuals, but they seem to me a contemporary equivalent of the 1960s-era performances by Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman (“TV Cello”) or Steve Reich or Philip Glass, both of whom cut their teeth performing in New York art galleries, or countless other artists of that era. (Reich’s “Three Tales,” a later video triptych, is a work equally suitable for display in galleries and theaters.)

I’ve always been curious, though, about what seems to me a less-explored aspect of museums’ musical presentation: the idea of curating concerts the way that one curates museum shows. Classical music is often compared to a museum, and I’ve often said that the field should embrace the comparison rather than rejecting it. Museums have been notably successful at opening up and maintaining their status as important cultural centers -- expanding their offerings, making their displays more user-friendly, adding money-earning amenities like shops and cafes -- in ways that could only benefit classical music. So why can’t the comparison extend to presentation?
(read more after the jump)

The most common approach is to create concerts that have some relationship to the art the museum is exhibiting. Examples: the ensemble “Music from China” performs at the Sackler and Freer; the National Gallery offers a series of concerts to accompany a current exhibition, like various presentations of Spanish-themed music during the show “The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600-1700.”

There’s another way to go about it, though. I’ve always looked back wistfully to the inception of the free Summergarden concerts in the outdoor sculpture garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These days, they’re simply concerts of contemporary music and jazz; but when the series was first conceived, its then-director Paul Zukofsky put the concerts together like a blockbuster show, so you’d get a whole summer of say, Stravinsky, the way the museum would present a comprehensive retrospective of Picasso.

The Philips Collection’s new series of Leading European Composers takes a similar, curatorial approach, going out and identifying a contemporary composer and bringing him in for a discussion-performance of his own choosing. The idea is not unlike a gallery show: a one-person evening to let audiences get a taste of new and recent work. Last week's installment, devoted to the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas, showed the pros and cons of the approach.

A pro was the music, especially "Tämä hetki - Dieser Augenblick," a bilingual song cycle well sung by Meri Siirala and a chamber ensemble that showed the composer's ability to write solidly and refreshingly for the voice (he is returning to Washington with two new works, including a co-commission by the Choral Arts Society, in 2011). A possible con was the fact that the format was so much like any other concert, with people on folding chairs in the wood-paneled music room. There are obvious advantages to keeping the music separate from the ebb and flow of gallery foot-traffic; and yet, particularly in the museum context, the idea of opening up the concert in such a way that people could wander through, get a taste of the music, stay for the whole thing or linger for a while or simply move on, seemed possibly more in the spirit of the setting.

What are your thoughts on museum concerts? Are there any particularly successful performances or series that come to mind?

By Anne Midgette  |  March 23, 2010; 6:28 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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A wonderful idea IF the acoustics are right. I do not understand why concerts continue to be held in the National Gallery, which has the acoustics of a handball court. Those same concerts held, e.g., in the Baird Auditorium would be much improved. In fact, the courtyard concerts in the NGA have bad sight lines and bad seats too. A triple treat! On the plus side, if you like Debussy, everything sounds like his music.

Posted by: cossack2 | March 23, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

A lot of clear-headed, practical philosophy here. I second the commenter's concerns about acoustics, and I can understand that some programmers may worry about investing an entire concert to a single composer, who may or may not draw much of an audience. But your overall recommendation strikes me as very much the right approach.

Posted by: WilliamMadison | March 23, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

One of the delights of my college years in Boston was the series of concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Fifty years later, they apparently are still going on. One of the museums here should look into its success and see what can be learned, what to emulate, what to avoid.

Posted by: wsheppard | March 23, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I'm all for playing classical music at museums, as I'm for playing it at all sorts of venues. But let's remember why it can be problematic to compare classical music to museums. And that is because museums are not part of our everyday lives. They are places you visit but are not part of your ordinary experience. It's the difference between seeing an artwork at the National Gallery and having an artwork hang in your home.

Posted by: robertcostic | March 23, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Interesting post and comments. I was also thinking along some of these lines a couple weeks ago when I heard a fine, free, beautifully sung Sunday afternoon chamber choral concert of music by Josquin des Prez, Frank Martin (Double Mass), and others in the same open, brutalist atrium of the Berkeley Art Museum where Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich had performed in the 1970s. (Before the Yalie ex-patriots smile too smugly, it should be remembered that the same architect -- Pietro Belluschi -- designed the Juilliard School, in New York City, at the same time; as well as the SFS Davies Symphony Hall [with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill] a decade later.)

All of the much newer San Francisco museums – the Mario Botta SFMOMA, the Herzog & de Meuron de Young, and the Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum – now regularly feature Thursday or Friday evening atrium “new music events” (with cash bars) for new [younger] museum patrons and their friends – and with music amplified and often featuring DJs and dancers, performance artists, fashion artists, and light and design shows. (For those scratching their heads at the mention of architects, Libeskind and Herzog & de Meuron have designed major Olivier Messiaen and Verdi opera productions in Berlin and New York City; and I believe that Botta has worked in Swiss opera houses as well. Perhaps in the 22nd century, the Washington National Opera will catch up.)

However, distinct from these “new music + events” (including the two or three fairly recent ambulatory and open-space, although alcohol-free, events in the East Building Atrium of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington) are the more traditional museum classical and world music chamber concerts, such as those at the Gardner, the Philadelphia Academy, the Frick (and Dendur) in NYC, the Phillips Collection Music Room (which once featured Glenn Gould, Jessye Norman, Emmanuel Ax, and several other leading musicians early in their careers), the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room (where Igor Stravinsky once famously resided), the small Gould Hall of the Legion of Honor in SF, and the Freer, Coleridge, and NGA West Building small auditoriums. Unlike at National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities receptions, chamber hall audiences attend to the well-curated chamber music performed in these special spaces.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 23, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, the leading Phillips Collection is trying to experiment with serving both new music functions, through it combined Sunday afternoon distinguished chamber music series; the new, weeknight “Leading European Composers” series (to be complemented by its new commissioning program); and the somewhat new or newer (and very popular) “Phillips after 5” programs on the first Thursdays of the month – which tend to be more informal and ambulatory, and which tend to feature classical guitar, jazz, and Chopin, sometimes with poetry and discussions (but always with cash bars).

Based upon the “Phillips after 5” experiences, the museum decided to close its famous music room to informal Thursday wanderers for the European Union-supported “Leading European Composers” series. I see no reason for the Washington Post to question them doing this (in fact, they did leave the rear doors open at the beginning, before needing to close them), given that, unlike the “Phillips after 5” events, the LEC concerts charged an additional (and well worth it) $15. Earlier this season, the Phillips hosted French composer Tristan Murail, and they will host the Spanish composer José Luis Greco in May.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 23, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Morton Feldman Marathon held in the central gallery of the Seattle Art Museum in January 2008 was a huge success. It was part of Seattle Chamber Players' Icebreaker IV festival curated by Alex Ross and Kyle Gann. You can see one of the reports about this marathon here (it includes some thinking about the acoustics in the gallery):

Posted by: elena10 | March 23, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

“If there is a Holocaust memorial in [Morton] Feldman’s work, it is “Rothko Chapel,” which was written in 1971, for [Mark] Rothko’s octagonal array of paintings in [the Ménil Foundation Rothko Chapel in] Houston. Rothko had committed suicide the previous year, and Feldman, who had become his close friend, responded with his most personal, affecting work. It is scored for viola, solo soprano, chorus, percussion, and celesta. There are voices, but no words.”

Excerpt from Alex Ross “American Sublime” New Yorker June 19, 2006

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 23, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

A number of museums have added world music concerts to their evening hours as a way to broaden their programming and connect to new audiences. While such series are deemed successful based on attendance or bar sales, the 'curation' of the program is what makes it viable for museums to maintain music as an integral part of their institutional initiatives. In the best case scenario, museums that base their concert programming on exhibitions help their audience understand how the arts influence each other. I will never forget my introduction to chamber music at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. When BSO cellist Jules Eskin whispered to me from the stage during the performance, I was hooked and ever since have sought locations beyond the concert hall to hear music. Whether at the Gardner, Frick, Morgan, or Cloisters, experiencing chamber music is much more enjoyable in an intimate setting. No bad acoustic, poor sightline, or lack of 'curation' can make smaller scale ensembles less meaningful than programming them in a large hall.

Posted by: billappleton | March 24, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Curiously, the idea of curating concerts has been happening in the rock world for the last several years. The All Tomorrow's Parties series has had several artists curate their English and American concerts. Similarly, the Wire magazine in London has helped to organize several shows that have artists curate them. I for one would love to see Kronos or Alarm Will Sound as curators.

Posted by: jgrossnas | March 24, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

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