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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Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Can I be perfectly honest for a second? I almost didn’t write this blog post. This year has been unbelievably challenging and draining on so many levels—COVID, protests, wildfires, murder hornets… need I continue? For a good while, a year-end wrap-up of my favorite albums from 2020 seemed like an almost pointless, even naive, undertaking.

Reaching the end of 2020 like…

Truth be told, though, music was one of the main things that helped me get through this “dumpster fire” of a year, and there was so much great stuff released despite (or in spite of) the state of the world. I truly believe that it deserves proper recognition. In fact, it quickly became a challenge to narrow down my initial list. Once I began thinking about my favorite releases from this year, the list grew to almost 40 candidates. Not bad for a year such as this!

Since this was such a “wonky” year (boy, is that an understatement!), this list is also a little wonky. Due to the presence of so many streamed music events, both live and pre-recorded, I decided to include some of those as well. As a result, this year’s list showcases 10 of my musical favorites from 2020—6 albums and 4 music streams. Once again, though, there were a ton more things that I could have selected. A handful of other favorites appear at the bottom of this post as “honorable mentions.”

Same as years past, each listing is accompanied by a short blurb and an audio or video clip. (In a few cases, there’s even a full recording.) If you like what you hear or see, I highly encourage you to support the artists by purchasing the album or donating directly to them and/or the performing organization. Artists need our support now more than ever, and financial contributions are one way to show our gratitude and help guarantee a return to concert venues once it’s safe.

Before launching into the list, an amusing anecdote: I was recently perusing through some old blog posts and noticed that in December 2017 (the year I started this blog), my first end-of-year album wrap-up began as follows: “It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one.” Oh to be a time traveler and inform my 2017 self what a “heck of a year” really looks like.

Anyway, here are my favorite albums and streams from 2020. In no particular order…

String Orchestra of Brooklyn & Eli Spindel – afterimage (Furious Artisans)

I am a sucker for concert programs that juxtapose old and new music, and this album scratches that itch perfectly. Released in January (pre-pandemic), afterimage perfectly pairs two recent works by Christopher Cerrone and Jacob Cooper with older pieces by Paganini and Pergolesi. The newer works are a particular highlight. Cooper’s expansive, time-suspending reimagining of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater emerges seamlessly from Cerrone’s luminous High Windows, a concerto grosso-like showcase for string quintet and orchestra. Add in phenomenal performances by the Argus Quartet, singers Mellissa Hughes and Kate Maroney, and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and you’ve got an album that I had on repeat many times throughout the year.

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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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