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?