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. 

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Filed under Carnegie Hall, Spring for Music, Stern Auditorium

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