By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Bloat: Our concert halls and opera houses are too big, compared to the European counterparts they pretend to copy, and compared to the dimensions of the best music they are meant to house. Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed, in Prague's largest theater, to a capacity audience of 750. The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, like comparable houses in San Francisco and New York, seats over 3,000. Slickly confident that if they build it we will come, management tells us little about the new kinds of music, or the new performance values, that will inundate the new halls with the sense of their own century -- not merely the cultural values of bygone centuries superficially modernized. Will there be new music for new audiences in the new halls -- in the Music Center's Walt Disney Concert Hall now beginning to gleam in the afternoon sun, in the other new one a-building in Costa Mesa, in the soon-to-be-gutted-and-rebuilt Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center? And will that new music be, as it deserves to be, newly defined? No news is bad news.
The failure of the media: Between the magnificence of our musical culture past and present, and the outside world that might seek admission to its mysteries, a vast information gap looms. Two radio stations pretend to serve the classical-music "needs" (their word, not mine) of this area: one listener- and tax-supported, the other commercial. Both are alike in the narrowness of their definition of audience tastes; both recoil from the notion of broadcasting music of less than mass appeal: no modern dissonance, no arcane medieval motets (or anything else vocal aside from a single paltry serving of opera once a week), a no-brain kibble in which masterpieces are often boiled down to single movements and Boccherini outpoints Boulez. One of the two stations, at least, generously supports local cultural activities with preview programs and informational talks. The other ignores its community, rejects the idea of arousing interest in, say, the Philharmonic's weekly programs with free spot announcements and previews, and, indeed, originates much of its programming at out-of-town affiliate stations as far distant as Denver and Boise. You might think that the first of these would be KUSC, the local public-radio station, and the second would be KMZT, the citadel of crass commercialism. Actually, it's just the opposite.
On the labor front: It can't be the shortage of good performing talent that leaves time and space on our stages for the likes of David Helfgott, Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church; something in the panorama of performance-arts audience passions is drawn to the physical or psychological anomaly that these misguided practitioners embody, and so tickets get sold. But the situation among orchestras in the past few years, especially on the East Coast, points up an even more anomalous situation: the inability of the most prestigious, famous and high-paying orchestras to attract and hold on to the conductors they and their audiences deserve. The New York Philharmonic has made the most ludicrous choice in hiring the 70-plus, aloof, only moderately musically interesting Lorin Maazel as the latest accessor to the podium of Mahler, Toscanini, Walter and Boulez. The Philadelphia, badly in need of a little flamboyance in the successor to the solid, stolid Wolfgang Sawallisch, chose instead the solid, stolid Christoph Eschenbach. And Boston, where Seiji Ozawa has overstayed his welcome by 25 years minimum, appears headed to settle for a fraction of James Levine's corporate loyalty while he also remains at the Metropolitan Opera and the Munich Philharmonic. One promising new conductor -- an American, for God's sake -- came over from Paris (where he is an authentic culture hero), made a series of debuts with East Coast orchestras, was seen and was lavishly praised: the exceptionally smart, charming and imaginative David Robertson. He deserved any one (if not all three) of those podiums, but he returned to Paris empty-handed. Out here, Esa-Pekka Salonen comes on strong, and so does Michael Tilson Thomas. It's getting so I have a waiting list for my guest sofa, as do my friends in San Francisco, for East Coast refugees starved for the sound of a symphony orchestra under exciting and musically honorable leadership.
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Music is designed to express feelings. These are the sole subject of its communication, the only inner reality it deals with. And the difference between one state of feeling and another, as expressed in music, is largely a matter of shape -- shape of melody and shape of larger form . . .
--Virgil Thomson, 1961
The product: The wisdom holds, in the calm of Beethoven's pastoral countryside, in the exuberance of a rapper's romance with the power of words. "Feelings," "communication": Thus far, at least, the performing arts are alike.
There is no definition of "classical" music that comes from within the music itself. The term is confusing. It can refer to music from a specific period -- the "classical" era in which a revival of fascination with the designs of classic architecture permeated the other arts as well -- or, more generally, to music become "classic" through familiarity, meant to be heard politely by a silent audience conditioned to applaud only in the right places. It is music written down by its composer, and therefore meant to be performed within its given outlines every time, give or take the enterprise of a specific performer. It is music that is marketed by being surrounded in a cloud of mystery. Descriptions of it are meant to be read with heavy emphasis on its foreign terms, preferably with an affected tone. Practitioners include radio's Karl Haas with his prissy overpronunciations, Mona Golabek (currently into your headphones on American Airlines widebodies) with her honeyed purr that wraps TLC around artsy blather, and -- remember? -- the immortal Milton J. Cross, master of the singsong rhetorical plush at the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in their gaseous heyday. Being performed in expensive, overlarge halls perpetuates the inscrutable aura that keeps the helots at bay and welds believers into a secret fellowship.