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Once Again, The "Experts" Are Attacking The Classical Music World

  Classical music commentators Greg Sandow and Joseph Horowitz have attacked our symphony orchestras and classical music again in recent blog posts at, and they are using their usual specious arguments and obfuscation. 

  Composer,critic and commentator Greg Sandow discusses the recent and controversial Washington exhibit of gay art which upset many conservative pundits who would like to see the National Endowment For The Arts abolished because of such things.  But he is not a conservative, and used this exhibit as an excuse to attack classical music in general in America.

  According to Sandow, such trendy and edgy art exhibits prove that classical music is stodgy, irrelevant and out of touch with modern reality, and that's why it needs to "innovate" in order to become "relevant".  But he is again guilty of judging classical music by the standards of other art forms.

   There are and have been many important  composers who happened to have been gay, including Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber,Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, Francis Poulenc, Hans Werner Henze, Gian Carlo Menotti, Charles Wuorinen and others,and some who may have been ,such as Schubert and Handel.

  But is this really relevant?  We can only judge their works on their own merits.  Their private behavior may give us valuable information about their lives and motivations, but what ultimately matters is their music.  The fact that there was a recent exhibit of gay art in Washington proves absolutely nothing negative about the classical music world today. 

   Commentator Joseph Horowitz,who has written interesting if rather tendentious books about the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, a history of classical music in America, and others, also compares the classical music world unfavorably with the current art museum scene. 

  Here is a typical statement of his from his blog :  "Though orchestras are sometimed debunked for being like museums, any number of museums are in fact more forward-thinking than any number of   American orchestras.Museums program thematically. "  American orchestras can seem stranded,insular, anachronistic".

  Whoa. These are loaded words if there ever were any .  In fact, thematic programming is not at all uncommon with orchestras in America today. Programs based on works united by common ideas can be found at many US orchestras. But who says that programming has to be thematic?  Thematic programming is a recent trend in US orchestras. It can be interesting, but it's not essential for them to make concerrtgoing worthwhile. 

  Here's an interesting example of concerts in March by the National Symphony of Washington under its new music director Christoph Eschenbach. The maestro has chosen an intriguing program with an Indian theme: the world premiere of a work for symphony orchestra and Indian instruments by the distinguished Tabla player Zakir Hussain, and excerpts from the great but rarely performed opera Padmavati by the great French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) ,which is the story of the Moghul conquest of India many centuries ago.

  Some US orchestras,particualrly the smaller regional ones, have very conservative audiences and thus are forced to restrict their programming pretty much to the familiar masterpieces of Mozart,Schubert,Beethoven, Brahms,Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov etc, but many of the top orchestras regularly perform the latest works by today's leading composers,such as those of New York,Boston,Chicago, Philadelphia,Cleveland,Los Angeles,San Francisco, Saint Louis, etc.

  And unfortunately, Horowitz quotes a claim written 70 years ago by the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson ,that the New York Philharmonic "was not part of New York's intellectual life".  This grossly unfair and slanderous statement dogged America's oldest orchestra for decades and has been blindly accepted by too many critics as true.

  Here's the story:  In 1940, American composer and critic Thomson was the music critic of a prominent New York newspaper which has long been defunct .  He reviewed a concert by the New York Philharmonic led by the great Englsih conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970),who was then its music director. 

  The main work on the program was the symphony no, 2 of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius ,a work which has long been an repertoire staple,and for good reasons,since it's a true measterpiece. But Thomson loathed the music of Sibelius, and never gave any work of his a good review. He dismiised the symphony as "vulgar,provincial and self-indulgent" , a ridiculous charge.

  He wasn't really describing the work,just bad-mouthing it. That was his right. But his nasty review contained a gratuitous dig at the New York Philharmonic.He made the preposterous claim that this concert proved that the orchestra was "Not part of New York's intellectual life".  Really?  How does one concert a critic happens to hate prove that the orchestra was not part of New York's intellectual life? 

In effect,he was saying that the orchestra could only be this if played music he happened to like,which was arrogant and presumptuous.  But the charge stuck to the orchestra for decades,despite the fact that ever since that time, under such great conductors as Dimitri Mitropoulos,Leonard Bernstein,Pierre Boulex,Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and now Alan Gilbert, the orchestra has been in the forefront of performing new music by the worl's leading composers ,including many,many world premieres ,and under many eminent guest conductors,too.

  The New York Philharmonic has performed new or recent works by who knows how many contemporary composers in the past 70 years or so, and ones of widely varying compositional styles and nationalities,including plenty of American music.

  No, both Sandow and Horowitz are dead wrong.  Classical music is very much alive ,and the way they make it sound as if it were no longer worth attending orchesra concerts for the most part is way off target.On the contrary, concertgoing has NEVER been more worthwhile.  Don't believe the so-called "experts."


Posted: Jan 18 2011, 06:51 PM by the horn | with no comments
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