Friday, April 22, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy filing and the state of classical music today

I was as dismayed as everyone else in the classical music community when I read that the Philadelphia Orchestra had declared bankruptcy.  It's a tough time for American orchestras.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's musicians' months-long strike ended just a few weeks ago.  The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra folded, as have a few others recently.  But Philadelphia is one of the most renowned American orchestras, on a level with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It's difficult to see an orchestra with that kind of history in financial straits.  However, bankruptcy is not the end of a business.  It's a chance to reorganize, get clear of debt and continue operating.  It's a bad thing for an organization's credit, but it's better than shutting down completely.  The Philadelphia Orchestra isn't going anywhere. 

But as this commenter on the New York Times pointed out, modern orchestras are not lean, mean musical machines.  They're bloated, with far more musicians on the regular payroll than are required by most classical works.  They have a limited repertoire.  They play the same concert three to five times a week.  And let's not even get into the aging audience for this music. 

On the other hand, I like this quote from Arts Beat's Daniel Wakin:
Some have argued too that there is nothing wrong with orchestras serving — in part — the function of museums, keeping the classics on view.
That's an argument for the status quo.  Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart aren't writing any new music, and there's a good reason orchestras keep programming Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: people will pay to hear it.  No one complains when Bruce Springsteen sings "Born To Run" in concert for the 10,000th time. And regardless of whether you listen to classical music, it's a link to our shared musical past.  It's important to keep this art form around, just as we wouldn't throw out a Picasso painting or a Giacometti sculpture.

I do hope the Philadelphia Orchestra finds a way through its current financial problems and comes out the other side stronger than ever.  But I think it will take some serious re-evaluation of the presentation and performance of classical music to get there.  Other orchestras should keep a close watch on developments in Philadelphia before their organizations reach the same state.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Masur conducts Liszt, Gubaidulina and Brahms with the New York Philharmonic

Last night's concert by the New York Philharmonic was something of a "greatest hits" show bookending a brand-new song.  And we had the rare experience of seeing two different conductors on the same program.  Kurt Masur, the scheduled conductor for the program, had an temporary eye infection that "[impeded] his ability to see the score" (according to a program insert from the Philharmonic), so he conducted the opening and closing works on the program, and stepped aside in favor of New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico for Sofia Gubaidulina's Two Paths: Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra.

The Philharmonic opened the concert with Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Les Preludes, one of my favorites.  Masur took the podium and received loud cheers before the orchestra made a sound.  He conducted this work (and the Brahms symphony after intermission) from memory and without a baton.  Throughout the concert, his conducting consisted more of cues and occasional indications of tempo changes than what I think of as actual conducting.  But Masur is in his 80s and while he moved well, he looked his age.  He is also Music Director Emeritus of the Philharmonic, and as his audience reception showed, he is still beloved by audiences and familiar with the orchestra and its musicians.  I got the feeling that Masur could have communicated whatever he needed to the musicians with his eyebrows and the concert would have been fantastic.  And opening with Les Preludes is sort of like Bruce Springsteen opening a show with "Born To Run."  It's a great piece of music, an audience favorite, a showcase for the entire orchestra, and music everyone in the group knows well.  And it was exciting to hear.  The brass fanfares were impressive, but what I enjoyed even more was the balance among all the instrument groups.  I heard melodies in the piece that I hadn't heard before.  I think I say that often, but it was certainly true last night. 

Daniel Boico took the podium for the Gubaidulina concerto.  His conducting was almost the polar opposite of Masur's: clear and precise beats for every measure, left hand cues when necessary, and he kept a close eye on the score.  To be fair, these concerts are only the second time the Philharmonic has performed this piece, so everyone in the room was paying extra attention, including Boico.  He had the task of being pressed into service as conductor for this piece at the last minute, and to a neophyte conductor like myself, that seems like a massive challenge.  But what an opportunity!  Boico performed admirably, managing the music and the soloists.  Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps and Associate Principal Rebecca Young were equally impressive as the soloists (they also premiered this work with the Philharmonic in 1999, under Masur).  Phelps took the higher part while Young explored the lower registers of the viola.  The music became a conversation between the soloists and the rest of the orchestra, including solo turns from Carter Brey on cello, Michelle Kim on violin, and from the winds.  It was a melancholic and mysterious piece, and well suited to the dusky tones of the violas.  I really enjoyed it, and not just as a violist.  I'll have to listen to the radio broadcast of this concert to hear it again.

After intermission, Masur returned to the podium for Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, another personal and audience favorite.  Phelps and Young also returned to the stage, as the first stand in the viola section.  I thought that was interesting; I'd expected them to have the rest of the night off since they had already performed as soloists.  Masur took the tempi in the Brahms just a touch slower than other versions I've heard.  Maybe the two were unrelated, but I thought that the slightly slower tempi enhanced the tension in the first movement and brought out some of the melodies and harmonies that might otherwise remain hidden.  At the end of the work, the rousing finale brought most of the audience to its feet and Masur received another loud and extended ovation.  The audiences in New York really love his work.  I hope he keeps coming back here to conduct as long as he's able to do so.

Sports bloggers as Muppets

I don't know if there's anyone who reads my blog and doesn't follow me on Twitter or Facebook, but if you're out there, you need to read Dan Levy's post on sports bloggers as characters from the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock.  I've enjoyed Dan's daily podcast for three or four years now and I'm going to miss having it as part of my daily routine.  This post is possibly the best farewell I've ever seen.  It's a labor of love that deserves a read.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Supporting the Prospect Park West bike lane

This morning I rode my slowest mile in recent memory, but it was for a great cause.  Park Slope residents organized We Ride The Lanes, a family- and community-oriented ride in support of the Prospect Park West bike lane.  Kids and adults on bikes of every shape and size rode from Grand Army Plaza to the traffic circle at 15th Street.  I didn't partake, but there were cupcakes, lemonade, and smiles all around at the end of the ride.  (Then I rode 18 miles in the park, because why not.)  There's a video of the event here, and I can be seen at about the 0:55 mark in the extreme upper left corner, waiting my turn to ride the lane.

As I was riding along the bike lane with hundreds of fellow cyclists, I realized that I just don't understand the fight over this bike lane.  It's just a bike lane!  We have much bigger problems in New York than this 20-block stretch of pavement alongside a public park in a residential neighborhood.  Transportation Alternatives, Councilman Brad Lander, and others have pointed out the safety benefits of the lane.  The traffic data shows cars are moving slower on Prospect Park West and that accidents for pedestrians and cyclists are down.  This lane is a good thing for the neighborhood.  I would hope that those opposed to this lane realize the sheer ridiculousness of the argument and turn their activism toward more urgent causes.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Wikipedia has all the answers

I was watching the 25th anniversary Les Miserables concert on PBS and it finally bothered me that all of the lower-class characters speak and sing with British Cockney accents.  Why?  Why not French accents?  Don't get me wrong: I love this musical.  But I've always wondered: why the British accents for the characters?

Wikipedia knows: it's used to represent Parisian criminal 'argot.'

Well, that was anticlimactic.