Stop Blaming New Music, Please!

By Marc D. Ostrow

I read a news article on the WQXR blog today about the precarious financial situation of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Both sad and unsurprising, most of the reasons for its troubles boils down to a lack of funding, from donations and subscriptions.  However, there is one reason put forth that’s both troubling and untrue: too much contemporary repertoire was programmed.

“Several Philharmonic musicians blame the orchestra’s current troubles on the radical shift away from its traditional symphonic formats. Longtime oboe player Randal Wolfgang was critical of conductor Alan Pierson’s programs, which involved a healthy dose of contemporary fare, as well as DJs and rappers like Mos Def. “I didn’t like his idea that we’d go in the direction of playing with rappers and trying to get something popular going,” said Wolfgang. “My feeling was the orchestra should go in the direction of the Tchaikovsky Fifth or Schubert Unfinished or Dvorak New World symphonies.”

And yet, this same article seems to go on to refute the premise just a few lines later:

Other musicians spoke nostalgically of the 1980s and ’90s, when esteemed conductors like Lukas Foss and Robert Spano led the ensemble in programs that mixed traditional and new works.

Maybe it wasn’t the fact that contemporary music was programmed. And, just like genres of pop music, not all new music should be lumped together as some kind of sonic monolith. Maybe it was the gimmickry involved in Brooklyn’s programming of new music.

Or maybe, just like New York City Opera, a more compelling reason might be the fact that the Brooklyn Philharmonic ceased to have a home hall and became an itinerant band of players performing at various venues around the borough. As with City Opera, this is not a winning formula for selling tickets and creating listener loyalty.

But why is it that musicians (particularly union musicians) are so quick to gripe about playing new music and blame contemporary works for an institution’s sour financial situation? True, some of it is not very good. But ask your local musicologist about the music of contemporaries of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms who are not programmed today.  Maybe some – but by no means all or even a majority – don’t like having to learn new works and performance techniques that are outside of their comfort zone.

Frank J. Oteri, recently posted an excellent article on NewMusic Box about Local 802′s new music bashing and a subsequent comment to it, citing numerous examples in connection with the City Opera collapse debunking the myth that programming too many contemporary works was a problem, let alone the problem.

We know that this is not the case. Exhibit A is Nico Muhly’s opera, “Two Boys,” which just premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, which not exactly a haven for new music. Although reviews by both the New York Times and Washington Post were mixed, the audience reaction was very enthusiastic, with the Times noting that the opening night performance garnered an “ardent ovation.” WQXR gave it a far more favorable review, noting that it was “an audience sensation.” It helps that Muhly’s palette incorporates many of the more accessible styles of new music. And also that he’s out there in the blogosphere.  But regardless of whether the opera is a critical success, people are buying tickets and liking what they hear.

So, can we please stop blaming the programming of contemporary works for an orchestra or opera company’s problems?

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Stop Blaming New Music, Please!

  1. It is not unlikely that ‘too much comtemporary music’ may be a factor, not as a whole, but in terms of performance culture. The ‘regular repertoire’ is based upon a number of certain aesthetic and psychological norms and values, which have been deemed outdated in the new music scenes after WW II. New music which can blend in the regular music practice, is an injection into what otherwise would remain a museum culture. But new music which goes very different ways, should remain in its own reserve, and not create alienation for audience developed upon the regular repertoire, which would cause indifference and credibility loss for orchestras.

  2. Clovis Lark says:

    Mr. Borstlap raises a non-issue. There is and has been no “‘regular repertoire’ based upon a number of certain aesthetic and psychological norms and values”. Standard repertoire has been continuously in flux. Works deemed essential in 1960 have receded in the public’s ear, and works similarly deemed in 1920 were gone by 1960. The audience he worries will be alienated is aging, dying off. And not grabbing the ears of newer generations, preaching a canon that they have no attachment for, will not grow new audiences.

    The real issue here is that US musical institutions have not followed the course of institutions in other art-forms, modernizing their approaches to culture. As a result, their popular bases have aged and dwindled. At the same time, these institutions have been bedeviled by new administrations whose visions and financial integrity are questionable (see NYC Opera, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, etc.). These administrations are often not artistically astute, lacking a solid background in the humanities and cultural history. Thus, they make bad decisions.

    Not addressing this, rather retreating into a past that never really was, will not fix the problem. There are too many examples where masterpieces would simply not exist today were musicians and impresarios not daring enough to present them regardless of the uproar.

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