Category Archives: Stern Auditorium

Oregeon Symphony Springs, with Passion, for Music

Wow, I just had a blast at the Oregon Symphony Spring for Music concert.  Lots of Oregonians in the audience, of course, cheering on their standard bearers.

Ives, Adams, Britten, and Vaughn-Williams.  The Britten Sinfonia da Requiem and the Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 4 were especially effective. The playing was not only on an amazingly high technical level, but also was genuinely passionate.  Musicians actually moving in their seats–maybe not as much as I hear the Berlin Philharmonic does, but still quite something.  This was the sort of concert you could drag your college-age kid to and he or she would be glad you did.  (So I wish I’d dragged mine.)

I’d arrived at the concert tired, thinking I might leave at intermission.  By then, I’d been so energized by the Britten performance, which concluded the first half, that there was no way I was going to miss the Vaughn Williams.  This was classical music-making at its best.  And the prolonged standing ovation, which went on seemingly forever, wasn’t fueled just by the home-town fans happy to be in NY.  This was the real thing, a celebration of a genuinely extraordinary shared experience.

Everyone I spoke to after was raving about it.  A publicist friend and I ran met another music writer on 57th Street after the concert.  He was blown away (although he put it in a much more dignified way).  With perhaps a touch of old-school east-coast snobbery, he was in a state of delighted shock.  “If the Monteral Symphony on Saturday measures up to even half of what this group did tonight, I’ll be delighted.”

Many congratulations to music director Carlos Kalmar, the members of the magnificent orchestra (including fellow blogger Charles Noble), and to all who support this fine organization.  People should leave a concert on a more-alive-then-when-they-got-there high.  An overwhelming number of us did.  I’m so glad I went!

3 Comments

Filed under Carnegie Hall, Oregon Symphony, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium

Spring for Music: Dallas Does Stucky Does LBJ

“Not every concert we do is a history lesson,” a Dallas Symphony member quasi-apologized to me after the orchestra’s Spring for Music Carnegie Hall concert last night.  “I’m looking forward to getting back to Beethoven and Brahms.”

We talked about that a while.  “But we couldn’t have played here with standard repertoire.”

And that’s the point, of course. Orchestras applied to be part of this 8-day festival at Carnegie Hall, presenting orchestras from around the country performing innovate programs. The Dallas Symphony commissioned  Steven Stucky to compose a work in honor of Lyndon Johnson‘s 100th birthday.  The oratorio August 4, 1964, libretto by Gene Scheer, with its Beethoven-Ninth forces (choir and solo vocal quartet) was the result. Premiered in 2008, it was performed again and recorded last week in Dallas.  It is this substantial and ambitious work that the orchestra and its music director Jaap van Zweden proposed to bring to Carnegie Hall.  Not surprisingly, they were invited to do so.

Imagine being the President of the United States. While America’s favorite pastime seems to be not baseball but finding fault with whomever is in office, the weight of the responsibilities is such that I always feel for–and root for, even when I’m feeling exasperated–the sitting president.

August 4, 1964.  You’re Lyndon Baines Johnson. The morning brings news (later shown to be false) that U.S. ships are under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.  In the evening, word that the long-recalcitrant FBI has finally discovered the bodies of three young civil rights workers. You insist the announcement of the latter be held until you–the president–have called the families.  And then you go on national television to, in essence, lie to the American people about an attack that never happened, and announce the start of bombing (a process that will eventually lead to your own political downfall).

Stucky and Sheer’s work, using texts from recorded phone conversations, letters, etc., shows LBJ at his best (the compassionate civil rights advocate personally notifying the families) and his worst, seemingly manipulated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and by a fear of appearing weak, into starting the bombing that led the U.S. into the debacle of the Vietnam War.  As with John Adams’s Nixon in China, a president who is tragic and heroic figure.  A riveting subject for a musical drama.

Soloists Vale Rideout (McNamara) and Rod Gilfry (Johnson) sat to the conductor’s right, as viewed from the audience.  Indira Mahajan (playing the mother of African-American James Chaney, one of the slain activists) and Kristine Jepson (the mother of Andrew Goodman, a white anthropolgy student from New York) were on his left.  (The other murdered student was Michael Schwerner.) Each pair inhabited separate vocal and musical worlds in Stucky’s fascinating musical construction.

This tragic subject matter makes perfect material for an evening-length work.  The music is eclectic and varied, at times lushly neo-romantic, at others driving and agitated.  Wonderfully crafted, of course, with fabulous orchestration. I didn’t respond emotionally to all of it; I’d like to hear it again, and am glad to hear it’s been recorded for release.  The center of the piece is an orchestral Elegy, which captivated me, followed by an exquisite aria, “Letter from Mississippi,” in which Mrs. Goodman reads the last letter from her son before he disappeared.  It devastated me; I wasn’t the only one crying.  For a first hearing of a big new work, that was quite something.

Not as many people from Dallas, when it came time to wave their (yellow) bandanas, as there had been from Toledo and Albany earlier in the series, but still quite a few. That’s not a surprise, given the distance.  The main level (where I sat) was mostly full, as were the boxes.  The balcony levels were essentially empty. That’s a good idea, I think, and good management, because in the rest of the hall there was that special full-house energy.  (I was at a Beethoven 9th performance earlier in the winter where the balcony was full but, for some reason, the main floor half-empty, and it felt like a party no one came to.)

“We’re doing Beethoven Ninth when we get back,” that Dallas Symphony member told me.  “Third time in four years.”  A sigh.  Overdosed on Stucky, but not all that excited about Beethoven Ninth, either.  This person loves being a member of that orchestra.  But as with most jobs, there’s ambivalence. “I tried to get myself excited about this concert.  It’s Carnegie Hall, after all.”

It was clear that other members of the orchestra were excited;  I met some after the concert who told me how enthusiastic they were about the piece. But not all of them.  As beautifully as this major orchestra played, the strongest visual impression was of calm professionalism.  As we wonder about what symphony orchestras can do to attract new and younger audiences, this is an issue.  You love your job, but can’t get all that excited for either yet another Stucky performance or yet another Beethoven Ninth performance.  That’s called being human.

But we spend money to go to concerts to get more in touch with our humanity.  To have an emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually engaging experience.  We don’t want to see and hear calm professionalism (and I don’t mean to imply that this is all there was at last night’s performance).

How do you get 85-100 orchestral musicians to all be passionate at the same time?  I have no idea.

3 Comments

Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium, Steven Stucky

Spring for Music: Toledo and Albany

In a little less than two hours, I’ll be at my third Spring for Music, a mini-festival of American orchestras, concert at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight: the Dallas Symphony performing Steven Stucky‘s August 4, 1964, which looks to be a big work with solo vocal quartet and chorus.  (I played the solo part many years ago for Stucky’s Voyages for cello and wind ensemble; it is quite a piece.  I wonder if he’ll remember me if I meet him at the reception.)  I’m especially excited about tonight because a former student of mine is a member of the cello section.

I’ve been to the performances of the Toledo (Saturday May 7) and Albany (Tuesday May 10) symphonies.  Both ensembles are more than impressive; they’re terrific. I wasn’t sure whether or not to be surprised.  Regional orchestras, back in my student days, were often not so hot.  Now there are so many good players in so many places that it should come as no surprise that both these bands are first-rate, certainly more than deserving of being heard in Carnegie Hall.

It was inspiring, in this time of concern over orchestras seeming irrelevant, to see the community support for both groups.  There were 1400 people from Toledo at Saturday’s concert, it was announced from the stage.  And last night when folks from Albany were asked to wave their bandanas (there’s a different colored one handed out for each orchestra, it seems), more than half the audience complied.  I’m wondering how much of tonight’s audience will have come in from Texas.  We’ll see who waves a bandana! A symphony orchestra is part of a community; a concert is a social event, in the best sense.  A shared experience.  And clearly these orchestras are loved and supported and embraced.  Which makes me optimistic about the future of symphonic music.

On the other hand, it makes you wonder how much of an audience there would have been without the orchestras’ traveling fan bases.  In his Times review of the Toledo performance, James Oestreich says there were “more than 2000″ people at the concert, I figure I assume he got from Carnegie Hall or the Spring for Music organizers.  Which means there were only a bit over 600 people not from Toledo there.  Without all the Albany folks last night, there would have been a lot of empty seats.

My big interest here in NY is seeing what people are doing to develop new (especially young) audiences while maintaining artistic integrity.  Spring for Music is extremely affordable–just $25 for any seat in the house, with the upper balcony seats only $15.  The concerts are certainly accessible.

The point of this series isn’t to bring in a new audience, though.  It’s about giving an orchestra the chance to do something artistically innovative without the financial pressure of having to bring in a big audience. From the SfM mission statement:

Spring for Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision. Spring for Music believes an orchestra’s fundamental obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations.

This is about artistic integrity and performance quality, and yay for that.  So I’d say the festival is aimed at that segment of the existing classical music audience which has an interest in new music (as well as home-town boosters with travel budgets).  Critics like the Times’ Anthony Tomassini are enthusiastic about it.  He wrote a glowing preview predicting great interest by both the music press and audiences.

But whatever the future of generating new audiences for classical music, especially orchestra concerts in big halls, may be, this isn’t it. The festival’s first concert, by Orpheus, drew only a half-full house. That’s not a criticism, really.  I like concerts where people play the music they want to play and don’t worry about selling 200+ tickets. But I do feel frustrated, because the one thing I haven’t seen here, amidst the many innovative smaller-venue offerings, is a model for how a big venue can bring in a younger audience to symphony orchestra concerts.

A few comments on what I’ve heard so far:

The Toledo Symphony, under its music director Stefan Sanderling, performed the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony and a theatre piece with orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1977), by Tom Stoppard and André Previn. Terrific performance–including the excellent actors.  In all honesty, though, while the Stoppard/Previn work was interesting and the music was fascinating and enjoyable, it was not exactly a gripping, cathartic experience.  I’m not surprised it doesn’t get done more often.

The enthusiastic David Alan Miller led the Albany Symphony in a program that included a theatrical element as well.  George Tsontakis’s Let the River Be Unbroken begins with a costumed fiddler in the back of the hall who works his way to the stage (and ends the piece by playing his way back to the rear of the auditorium).  The heart of the program was The Spirituals Project, arrangements of spirituals by eight composers, commissioned by the Albany Symphony (according to the program notes, they’ve done thirteen altogether; an ninth was performed as an encore).

I was excited about this.

Wouldn’t Dvořák be delighted, I thought, that finally, all these years after he advocated it, that spirituals (“Negro melodies,” as he put it) are providing the material for concert music?  And in Carnegie Hall.

In his program note, David Alan Miller writes that he began the commissioning project because he was “surprised and frustrated to discover how few artistically compelling orchestral versions of spirituals were available” when he was developing a program featuring Dvořák’s  “New World” symphony.

But I found it strangely unsatisfying.  Synthesizing genres is great, but the more I listened, the more I was struck that this wasn’t doing all that much for the spirtuals. It recontextualized them in a way that, to me, restrained them.

Yes, it is great that a modern symphony orchestra loves this music of African-American heritage so much that it wants to embrace it in its own way.  But drenching these powerful songs in the luxurious trappings of an essentially white, European-derived musical language seems somehow to suck the mojo out of them.  Vocal soloist Nathan De’Shon Myers is a stunningly good baritone with an incredible voice, wonderful sense of line, and tremendous energy.  I just wasn’t moved the way I wanted to be.

So I find myself wondering.  Is there a need for “artistically compelling orchestral versions of spirituals”?  What about spirituals requires orchestration?  Is all music made better by giving it a contemporary classical orchestration?

I found myself wanting to hear a good gospel singer, maybe a choir, and no orchestra.

I talked with a well-connected friend who was at the concert as well.  He knows people in the Albany Symphony, or people who know people, and said that this was supposed to be, among other things, outreach to the African-American community.

If so, I didn’t see where it worked.  (My friend thinks it’s an example of clueless white classical-music people having no idea about an audience they are trying to reach.) Not many non-white faces in the audience–or in the orchestra.

Contemporary African-American culture is vibrant and alive (I should probably say cultures).  I don’t imagine it would be all that exciting, were I an African American who wasn’t a fan of symphonic music, to learn that an orchestra with no African-American players (at least I didn’t spot any from my seat) was doing heavily-orchestrated versions of music of another time.

All that said, Spring for Music is, as they say, a laboratory.  A place where you do experiments, and learn from the results.  Art is paradoxical, for the result of the experiment may be different for each member of the audience.

And now, 1964. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium

Pianist Greg Kallor at Weill Recital Hall Tonight: Getting (an Audience) to Carnegie Hall

Late this morning, I spotted pianist-composer Gregg Kallor’s performance tonight in Weill Recital Hall (at Carnegie Hall).  Here’s the blurb from Time Out New York:

The composer-pianist’s recital starts off with Chick Corea’s Children’s Song sandwiched between works by Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, demonstrating Kallor’s fluid ability to move between the jazz and classical realms. Also on the program are works by Bartók, Louise Talma, Thelonius Monk, Brad Mehldau and Annie Clark, plus a world premiere of Kallor’s own A Single Noon.

This sounds (or should I say “looks”?) fascinating. So I’m going. I love composing performers and performing composers and think we need more of that. Performing musicians who create music.  And juxtaposing different musical genres is fascinating as well–doesn’t always “work,” so we’ll see.  I’m wondering how this sort of program will feel in a formal space like Weill.

Getting (Yourself) to Carnegie Hall

There’s old joke.  “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” a tourist asks a man with a violin on a New York street.  “Practice!” he replies.

To elaborate:

The idea is you get good, and Carnegie Hall books you.  That’s rare, unless you have a big name, either as an established artist or as a fast-rising young/unconventional performer or group.  It takes quite a bit for Carnegie Hall itself to hire you to play.

The alternative is you get good and someone else rents the hall and presents you.  Tonight’s concert is an example.  It’s underwritten/presented by the Abby Whiteside Foundation as part of a series of four concerts this spring.  Each recital has, or had, a very interesting mix of music, including a lot of new music. I’ve enjoyed exploring the foundation’s website–obviously Ms. Whiteside was a inspiring teacher.

Getting an Audience to Carnegie Hall?

Well, there’s the publicity and marketing.  What do the presenter and the hall do to let people know about the concert?  When it’s a rental, like tonight, it’s all up to the presenter.  The hall will post information on it’s website and sell the tickets, but the real responsibility is for the people presenting the concert.  The web is so important–as I said, I found tonight’s concert from the Time Out New York site.  What else was done, I don’t know.  Some organizations hire a publicist for their events.  I get a zillion emails from publicists about events here, but I’m evidently off the radar for the publicist for these concerts (if there is one).

Some other thoughts:

I don’t quite understand why the Whiteside Foundation website pages for these concerts, each of which are in Weill Recital Hall, feature the same photograph of the Perelman Stage of Stern Auditorium, cluttered with chairs for an orchestra concert.  Why not use a photo of the actual venue?

Carnegie Hall has recently revamped it’s website, and it looks a lot better than it used to.  Still pretty boring, but no longer mystifyingly ugly, so it’s a big step forward. Ironically, while it has nifty panoramic photos of the interior of the halls, there are no easy-to-find, easy-to-download photos (hence the lack of photos here).

A good, well, let’s say terrific, website for a major performing arts center is a massive, expensive operation.  To be genuinely engaging, especially for people under 40, it needs extensive multimedia integration with audio and video.  Maybe more of that will emerge as time goes by.

But why wait? If [le] poisson rouge, which has at least as many events as Carnegie, can have such an effective multimedia website, why can’t Carnegie, now?  Surely Carnegie Hall could could get plenty of interns to do the work. So maybe there’s something going on over there to prevent much video.  Even the New York Philharmonic, which is often criticized for a supposedly-boring web presence, has extensive video integration.

Meanwhile, the listing in the Time Out New York music pages, run by the amazing Steve Smith (who has superhuman energy and dedication to the musical life of New York) made me much more interested in tonight’s concert than this description on the Carnegie Hall site:

Program

  • Works by Bartók, Chick Corea, Fred Hersch, Gregg Kallor (World Premiere), Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Stravinsky
Steve or one of his colleagues must have taken the Foundation’s press release and written the paragraph I quoted above. I’ve had the experience of seeing a long, unfocused press release and then how beautifully it was transformed into an engaging short paragraph by someone at Time Out.  I wrote earlier about hearing Steve, along with his NY Times colleague Nate Chinen, talk about a sense of mission in his work: it’s about getting people to go experience events. And you can tell it from his writing.  Someone at Time Out took the time to write a paragraph that makes you want to go, that states succinctly what’s fascinating about this concert.  The Carnegie Hall listing simply tells you what’s on the program.
Something seems backwards here. Why should a music writer be working harder at this key element than the people putting on the concert?  In the best of all possible worlds, the concert presenter would supply the hall, in this case Carnegie, with some engaging copy.  Maybe even a photo.  Here, the Foundation doesn’t even have engaging copy on its own website.
I don’t mean to bash anyone here.  As I say, it takes a lot of work.
I organize a dozen free concerts every summer in Greencastle, Indiana.  I’ve been doing it as a volunteer, and I don’t have a huge amount of time to put into publicity–especially audio and video. I look at my own press releases now and realize how much they, well, suck.  But my thoughts are turning to how to draw in more people to our concerts in Indiana, and to concerts everywhere.  It’s obvious that good, short press releases and a genuinely engaging web presence, including a website, blog, and active presence on Facebook and Twitter are essential.
Oy!  Such a lot of work.  And I need to practice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Composer-Performers, Greg Kallor, Publicity and Publicists, Stern Auditorium, Steve Smith, Time Out New York, Weill Recital Hall