You should add The Listening Sessions to your regular reading. I just did.

I’m tickled by this recent post about someone booing Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, performed by Haitink and the Chicago SO. I mean, you’re upset by Lutosławski?

But, at the same time, I’m a little saddened by the fact that among all the vox-pop support for Luto’s piece quoted on the blog –

Here’s the funny thing, though. When the excitement over the “boo” subsided and attendees started talking about the piece, reactions were, from what I could hear, largely positive. Sure, they thought it was weird, they didn’t really know what they’d just heard. But they loved some of the freaky instrument effects (those harps!) and the sheer size of the thing in terms of the number of players required and the amount of sound put out. A heard a lot of comments about how difficult that must have been to perform, and to do it with such effectiveness.

– none of it spoke of the music, only of the exciting spectacle that is getting lots of people on stage doing crazy stuff. Actually, maybe the booing guy was the only person who felt strongly about the music – if so, good on him for having the guts to say what he thought. I wasn’t at the concert, obviously, and there may well have been much more audience reaction than that quoted by The Listening Sessions – including, hopefully, some people to whom the music spoke on a deeper level than expensive pizazz – but this sort of “theme park” justification for the value of contemporary music is becoming all-pervasive and I really wish it would stop. (At this point I’m not having a go at TLS, who I’ve only just discovered, more at a wider trend in the marketing of contemporary music.) It’s cheap, dishonest, lazy and, in the long run, almost certainly damaging. It encourages a market-led sort of composition that throws in easy gimmicks in place of compositional thought because of the assurances of ticket sales, and it risks demeaning some of the more substantial contributions to the recent classical literature. (I’ve written about this sort of thing elsewhere before.) I can’t think of a worse fate for serious music than to become a dependable source of cheap thrills and simple emotional roadmaps.

At this point, I’m not sure what the answer is, because although it would be wonderful to have serious discussion of the aesthetic and social effects of avant garde music tied up in the advertising of new pieces, I realise that’s a hard marketing sell. I’m just putting this rant out for the time being while I think a bit further.

Edit: TLS has written a thoughtful response, which I urge you to read.

Also, it’s probably coincidence, but Daniel Wolf has recently and intriguingly proposed that:

[T]he most successful genre for American operas seems to be the pageant.   Treemonisha, Four Saints in Three Acts, Porgy & Bess, The Mother of Us All,  Einstein on the Beach, Nixon in China, Satyagraha, Akhnetan, Europeras 1 & 2 … are all pageants, a form that may have elevated roots in the English Masque but is most familiar to Americans through the grade school and church and boardwalk and award show and political convention and half-time show spectacles that are a formative part of our shared experience.   I suspect that having pageantry as the default setting for the “serious” musical theatre is due in no small part to the ability of film and television to handle dramatic narrative and intimate scenes well, as well as the capacity for verisimo which the screen media share with the spoken theatre.*  But mostly, our operas are pageants, because pageantry is the habitual means for marking a remembered event as big, serious, and significant.


2 thoughts on “Boo!

  1. “none of it spoke of the music, only of the exciting spectacle that is getting lots of people on stage doing crazy stuff.”

    Hey! Maybe classical concerts are becoming more like pop concerts at long last.

  2. Love this post, & sympathize.

    But to be fair: the craziness and pizazz of classical music are pretty alien to consumers of pop culture. When people say “omg I saw [pop singer] onstage with like a whole symphony orchestra” they usually mean about twelve people plus a rock band. The presence of eighty synchronized, unamplified musicians onstage is a great and rare thing, familiar though it may have grown to you and me.

    Also: it may be too much to demand that concert audiences not only enjoy contemporary music, but articulate their pleasure in a sophisticated fashion. Just because they don’t describe the effect that the music’s substrata had on them doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After all, I don’t see a lot of subscriber-types coming out of their Beethoven recitals saying, “I really liked how he articulated the countersubject”; much more likely, “Ooh wasn’t that lovely, and so passionate.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re philistines who will fall for anything “lovely” or “passionate”! They’re responding to the surface because that’s what the untrained ear can identify. Even in Chicago, filling an entire concert hall with people who can tell you what’s going on in Lutosławski might be a tall order.

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