Sunday, May 13, 2007

New Meaning for the Boston "Pops"

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, this past Wednesday's Boston Pops concert featured a brawl between a talker and a shusher in the second balcony. While most news features have capitalized on the incongruity between a brawl and a symphony concert, Jeremy Eichler's thoughtful review in the Globe asks some more important questions.

The audience that night was a mixed bag of Pops subscribers, benefit concert-goers, and Ben Folds fans--not the normal Symphony Hall makeup. In Eichler's opinion, the Pops could have better seized upon the opportunity with their programming of the first half. Instead of the ubiquitous Dvorak "Carnival" Overture, Eichler suggests:

"...a short, gnarly, and exhilarating work of 20th-century music, offering a quick glimpse of, say, the ecstatic washes of color in Messiaen, or the quivering extraterrestrial sound worlds of a Ligeti score?"

As an advocate of contemporary music, I give Eichler's suggestion a resounding "right on!" As a practical observer of concert audiences, however, I'm forced to note that the inclusion of such a piece would probably kill the "pops" ethos. But maybe therein lies the problem.

We tend to categorize and pigeonhole repertoire to such an extent there is little to no flexibility, even when the audience might afford the opportunity. We have "Early Music" concerts, "New Music" concerts, "Pops" concerts (that's where all the film music goes, folks!), and "Classics" concerts. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Alex Ross discusses how Esa-Pekka Salonen has tried valiantly to usher in contemporary music as part of the LA Phil's standard repertoire (with varying levels of success). Maybe the element of surprise should be more standard for concerts nowadays. Sure, reel the regulars in with a big seller, but have a couple of "TBAs" on the program. Vary it: a newly commissioned work (short), a film music suite, an oldie-but-a-goodie. I wonder what would happen if you had audiences coming to see one or two works, and being stretched just a little tiny bit.

It is truly hard to stand outside myself and speculate as to my reaction as a non-music specializing concertgoer. But I think that I'd be quite okay with hearing one or two of the Ligeti piano etudes, even if I came to hear the 1812 Overture or a medley of the best of John Williams. Idealistic? Maybe. Optimistic? Assuredly.

(Cross-posted at LiveJournal)


Anonymous said...

As a long time member of the LA Philharmonic audience, I think I can correct some of what you have said about Salonen's programming. First, his level of success with attracting audiences to modern music is not "varying", at least not anymore, but actually very high. He can run up all-Ligeti or all-Thomas Ades programs and people will turn up in large numbers and cheer. He also does programs where the most modern piece is the main event and the rest of the program provides context or in some way sets up the new piece. The Phil's publicity doesn't disguise this, but emphasizes it.

He specifically doesn't do much of the kind of programming you recommend: lots of ear candy with a small bitter pill or two.

His success with modern music didn't happen overnight, but is the result of about 20 years of steady work to train the audience. The result is that the LA Phil audience is not like the audiences of most other orchestras in this country (well, Michael Tilson Thomas has done something similar in San Francisco, and David Robertson seems to be trying it out in St. Louis -- I bet he succeeds).

Biby Cletus said...

Cool blog, i just randomly surfed in, but it sure was worth my time, will be back

Deep Regards from the other side of the Moon

Biby Cletus

Rebecca said...

No need to defend Salonen, truly. As a Los Angelean native, I am quite indebted to his efforts. You are right, "varying" is not an accurate reflection. I was implying, as you say, that it did not happen overnight.

I was not implying, however, that he programs "ear candy" or even that his programming follows my recommendation. With successful concert series like "Minimalist Jukebox" etc, it isn't necessary.

I love the fact that he draws connections between the old and the new. In fact, I'd like to see more conductors do this with their programming. I'd also like to see less in the program notes and more comments to the audience from the conductor/composer.

What I didn't make clear, I suppose, is that the LA Phil is a model. I do not think all orchestras are blessed with a)an Esa-Pekka or b)an educated audience, so I was simply suggesting a route to work toward the loftier goal.

There have been plenty of "New Music" concert series experiments that have failed. I'm suggesting that we should blur the lines of our categorization and stop compartmentalizing music into "ear candy" and "bitter pills" at least when it comes to programming.


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea