Sunday, October 21, 2012

The New Classical Era?

     Having lived in Chicago for about ten years of my life, I try to keep up with the various things that are going on there, so when I saw an article in the New Yorker by Alex Ross about the Chicago Symphony’s opening night at Carnegie Hall, I immediately read it, curious to see what sort of review the concert had gotten.  It has only been three years since Riccardo Muti has been directing the CSO, and some of that time has been a little shaky.  The first year wasn’t as great a success as expected because of Muti’s health problems, which prevented him from directing a number of concerts.  And, as we know, the last few weeks have been tumultuous due to a short-lived strike in the orchestra.  There were questions about whether the CSO would be able to pull off Carnegie Hall’s opening night in New York, but thankfully, I am proud to say that according to several reviews, the orchestra gave a beautiful performance, a good sign for the collaborative future of the CSO and Maestro Muti.  
    More than just a great performance, Muti’s repertoire choices bring up some interesting ideas.  Instead of playing the current popular choices such as Beethoven or Mozart, Muti decided to perform Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Ottorino Respighi’s  “Feste Romane,” Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and Mason Bates’ (one of the CSO’s composers in residence) “Energy Symphony.”  Accordingly, Alex Ross titled his article about the concert “Back in Style.”  According to Ross, it seems that different historical periods value, or at the very least, put more emphasis, on certain composers.  The resulting effect is that the same composers and the same works are performed repeatedly by different orchestras all around the world.  Unsurprisingly, this can make classical music feel dated.  As musicians trying to find our footing in a world that has already been labeled as passé, it is probably not in our best interest to limit ourselves to the most “well-known” and readily-accepted group of composers.  In an informal talk with the Maestro, Ross reports that Muti chose these works in part out of nostalgia: “This fantastic symphony by Franck... was played everywhere when I was young... Then, suddenly, it vanished.  Why is this?”  Indeed, that is an interesting question.  Of course, there will always be prevailing trends, and many composers have only truly been discovered post mortem, only to be brought back to life with a surge of excitement and sense of discovery.  Bach, for instance, was venerated as an organist during his lifetime, but it was only after his death that people began to see the genius of his writing.  Perhaps Muti’s choices will have a similar effect on Cesar Franck for instance, whose works, aside from the violin sonata, one rarely hears of.  Muti’s program made me realize that one of the ways in which to keep classical music fresh and pertinent is to showcase its range.  Programmation is just as important as the level of performance, the decision (or not) to play in more approachable venues, the consideration of audience participation, and countless other details which we have talked about over the course of the semester.  Furthermore, Muti did not only revive old “standards,” he also promoted the performance of contemporary works.  The Chicago Symphony has two composers in residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, both hand picked by Maestro Muti, who has shown that he is not afraid to showcase these two young talents by bringing their works on tour and performing them alongside the classics.  
    Perhaps strangely, I have never really thought of the issue of programming as having a direct impact on our audiences.  However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is an aspect which we can control as musicians and performers, and one that may have a much bigger impact than we think.  I know that one of the “tricks” often used by concert organizers is to insert a new work into a program otherwise filled with Beethoven or Mahler, so that concert goers end up experiencing something like swallowing a pill by coating it in ice cream.  Yet, Muti’s “magnificent performance,” (quote from John Von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune) was programmed in such a way that everything felt new.  In our society of pluralism where anything goes, why are we limiting ourselves to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want these guys to disappear, but I think it would be interesting to see them share the stage more frequently with a diverse assortment of their contemporaries, predecessors and descendants. 

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