Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 4: Programming (New Music)

This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.

On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:

James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?

Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.

Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)

While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”

This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.

Funny, but also sadly true. (And sorry, I don’t know who to credit for this image!)

(Side note: any newer works that are programmed statistically tend to be written by white male composers, an issue that is only just starting to be addressed.)

But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”

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Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

Sometimes you witness a performance that is so incredible, so out-of-the-ordinary that it sticks with you and will just not leave you alone. That’s just what happened a few days ago when I attended a performance of György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Programmed as the conclusion to Augustin Hadelich‘s recital at the Aspen Music Festival—a forward-looking program of pieces by Francisco Coll, Stephen Hartke, and Tōru Takemitsu—Ligeti’s concerto is a wildly virtuosic workout for the soloist and presents almost every technique from the string player’s bag of tricks. The accompanying chamber orchestra (in which four of the players double on ocarinas!) is also no mere supporting role; many of the players’ parts are tremendously challenging to execute.

Sound-wise, the Violin Concerto is a far cry from Ligeti’s “sound mass” compositions of the 1960s, such as Atmosphères and Lux aterna—both made famous (or infamous?) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ligeti had begun to hone a style that reconciled avant-garde elements with the eclecticism of postmodernism. His Violin Concerto (composed, premiered, and revised between 1989 and 1993) is written with this sensibility in mind, embracing everything from medieval music to Classical forms, from the virtuosic Caprices of Paganini to folk music. This creates a work that’s a sort of a stylistic “grab bag”—one that is not fully tonal and traditional, but not fully avant-garde.

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, I thought so too going into the concert. I was already familiar with Ligeti’s music and this piece from YouTube videos and performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. But nothing would prepare me for hearing it live.

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Six Pieces for Halloween

Classical music has long been a magnet for the spooky and mysterious. From orchestral works to songs, there’s no shortage of pieces that either sound frightening or have some sort of bizarre or sinister backstory associated with them. So, to celebrate the month of October, here are six pieces to spark the imagination and send shivers up your spine:

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Listen with the lights off… if you dare!

1. Carlo Gesualdo: “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (1611)

The life of the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo is similar in many ways to that of a character from a horror film. First off, in terms of his music, many of Gesualdo’s pieces make ample use of dissonance and other “crunchy” harmonies. Although this doesn’t seem too odd on the surface, some of these harmonies wouldn’t be widely used until the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, which gives Gesualdo’s music an eerily modern feel for the time period in which they were written. Regardless, his use of dissonant harmonies in this particular madrigal (the title of which translates to, “I die, alas, in my suffering”) fits the poem’s theme of longing and emotional agony quite effectively.

Oh, and it just so happens that Gesualdo was also a murderer! One night in 1590, Gesualdo returned to his home in Naples to discover his wife in bed with another man. Furious, he flew into a rage and killed both of them in cold blood. And if this isn’t shocking enough, it turns out that after a thorough investigation, Gesualdo was eventually acquitted. (He was born to a well-off family and held some noble titles, so it clearly must have paid off to know the right people!) Today, Gesualdo has become one of the most infamous figures in music history, both for his stunningly original music and strange biography.

(For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating figure – and for more grisly details – the music critic Alex Ross wrote a great article about Gesualdo for The New Yorker in 2011, which you can read here.)

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