I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Symphony Program Titles

Two of the Houston Symphony’s concerts during the last month or so of the season are titled “Flor Conducts Mozart” and “Symphonies in C.”

Innocuous enough, if not very informative. In each case, you have a vague sense of what the evening will offer: at least two works alluded to by the title and something of equal or lesser weight to round out the program. But in each of these cases the marketed title ignores the music of greatest interest on the program and misrepresents the concert to ticket buyers.

The only Mozart Flor conducted was a piano concerto - and note also that the soloist, Anne-Marie McDermott, did not receive headline billing. The remainder of the concert was a Symphony funèbre by Joseph Kraus (a near exact contemporary of Mozart’s and a pretty interesting and original composer in his own right) and Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. Surrounded by this music, Mozart’s buoyant K. 414 concerto seemed out of place – and certainly not the central work of the evening. In fact, the first night of the weekend, the Mozart came off worst. Shostakovich had clearly received the bulk of the rehearsal time and McDermott was still figuring out what level of projection she needed for the hall.

Hidden on the “Symphonies in C” program are two Clarinet Concertos – one of them a world premiere. Yes there are two Symphonies in C (Mozart #34 and Bizet), but isn’t the story of the night the commissioned concerto by a local composer –
Richard Lavenda, who is on faculty at Rice Univ. – performed by the Symphony’s principal clarinetist? Rename the concert “Houston Pride” and see if people don’t turn out in greater numbers just out of curiosity.

Greg Sandow – consultant, critic, blogger & cool kid – shows us the greener grass with his titles for the St. Louis Symphony’s 05/06 season. (Thanks to Alex Ross for the link & 411 on Sandow’s involvment.) “Light in the Darkness,” “Radiance,” “Joie de vivre,” “Layers of Purity.” That piques my interest and makes me wonder what’s on the program (the programs themselves are pretty intriguing, too) . It makes me look more closely at works I might otherwise dismiss as familiar or not of interest in order to unpack the thematic connections. That’s poetry, man.

A few dozen more Sandow’s out there would be a very nice thing. Great work, Greg.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Lively Up Your Blog

I was pretty darned ecstatic when, within a couple weeks of setting up residence in the classical* music blogosphere, I was linked to by several blogs that I read regularly. "How cool," thought I, "instant blog cred." The curse was that I had nothing to say – or rather I had plenty to say but none of it felt new, relevant, clever, or particularly well put. Combine those inferiority issues with a trough in my personal manic cycle and you have lengthy hiatus.

It's time to get some content on this here blog and earn my links from the cool kids. I'm going to loosen up a little bit - go for a conversational tone, but try to avoid ranting or babbling. (Punctuation's bound to get ugly – grammarians are forewarned.) Over the next couple days, I'll put up a barrage of posts - things I meant to say that I'm just now getting around to.
Share and Enjoy.

* replace at will with your preferred alternate descriptor

Sol - La - Ti - D'oh!

The Simpsons roasted classical music a couple weeks back. I only saw the episode mentioned on a couple of the blogs on my regular route. The Artful Manager & Adaptistration both have quick synopses and relevant quotes. Follow the links for a recap if you didn't see the show. Neither writer found the episode’s treatment of classical music as disturbing as I did.

In the space of two minutes the music was summarily dismissed as dull and irrelevant. Three separate strands - the core symphonic tradition, complexity/atonality and simplicity/minimalism – got this treatment, and a handful of diminishing stereotypes were thrown in for good measure (effete musicians; even the players don’t like new music; da-da-da-dum – the hook as cell phone ring - is all that matters).

Usually the show balances respect for art and artists while backhanding the greedy, corrupt and misguided motivations of the people and institutions around them. In an earlier episode, Homer is exploited by an art dealer who sells his heap of junk as "outside art." After being a flash in the pan, Homer decides to find his voice and create an original piece. Marge introduces him to Pop Art with humorous results that do not once denigrate the art.

In the same way, this recent episode skewered Springfield’s plans to build a performing arts center to bridge the “culture gap” with its rival neighbor Shelbyville. They hire Frank Gehry to design the hall and while both he and the Disney Hall-esque PAC are gently lampooned, the radical design was never ridiculed. None of the townsfolk looked at the model and said "What the hell is that?" Gehry even guest voiced his character.

Classical music did not get the same evenhanded treatment. No one stood up to defend it. Couldn’t the writers have found a place to drop in a classical music luminary - someone like Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, or Lang Lang? The conductor was a generic nobody, basically a straight man. And Lisa - the musician of the family and the cultural conscience of the town – why didn’t she have anything to say about the Philistines of Springfield?

The darkest irony is that on opening night the hall was completely full of precisely the people arts administrators want to see – the everymen and women of Springfield. And they walked out of the most sure-fire programming imaginable – Beethoven’s Fifth. If things have got that bad then we are right and royally screwed.