Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

More Clearing of the Inbox

Here’s a question that has been languishing in Hotmail for many months now. Huge topic, but I try and take a futile stab at it.

In your 2/11 post you referred to "distasteful modern" pieces. I would be so curious to hear more from your insider's perspective as a player about what makes some modern pieces distasteful. Is it gratuitous dissonance, technical demands on the performers, what? Don't feel like you have to name names of specific composers or pieces (unless you're not averse to doing so in which case I would love to know), but I would like to know how often you feel that you as a CSO member are asked to present modern music that strikes you as good material for a s.s. And are those pieces most typically 20th century works or are they just as likely to be something written in the last few years? I direct an organization that specializes in commissioning new music, particularly for the choral/orchestral repertoire so I would be curious to hear your thoughts on it if/when you have time. A future post perhaps?

There are so many ways players hate modern music it is impossible to discuss them all. As an aside, one of the most surprising things to me entering this profession was the discovery that orchestra musicians might be even more conservative than their audience when it comes to new music. The s.s. designation (shit sandwich) can apply to any concert with a 20th or 21st century work. Chances are somebody is going to hate the filling.

The most easily dismissed musician complaints are those levied against anything unfamiliar, or any piece that doesn’t live up to the reputations of the ‘old masters’. For many players and audience members alike, the concert hall has become a mausoleum where only the most esteemed corpses are allowed to rest.

Beyond that, atonality is probably the most criticized element of modern works, whether or not they are familiar. Schoenberg’s music gets the most derision from players even though a number of his pieces entered our repertoire under our former music director. When it comes to Schoenberg, familiarity definitely breeds contempt, or worse. There are those who claim the second Viennese school was a cabal formed to kill western music. Go figure.

Moving on to what I would consider more nuanced critiques of new music, the foremost would be simply lack of craft. Ungainly or unplayable instrumental parts are sure to raise musician hackles. Poor orchestration is another but related complaint. Dense, muddy, over-scored orchestrations seem to be the norm for a lot of the newly commissioned works we see.

Works that utilize musicians like robots are especially distasteful (although this critique can just as easily be applied to composers like Bruckner and Wagner, IMO). Often, it seems as if a new work was written on a synthesizer and might be best also played by one. A more subtle variation of that would be the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.

The whole notion that players and audience members need to ‘get’ a modern piece of music is something that could merit a lengthy book – by someone other than myself. To touch on it, Boulez’s music is often held up as an example of the hyper-intellectual and unintelligible. But in my opinion it is possible to have an emotional response to his music (beyond anger) with a little bit of open-mindedness. Unfortunately, that is in short supply at times.

My own feelings, which put me squarely in the minority, are that it is unfair to compare a recent work, especially one getting its first performance, to any of the over fed war-horses contentedly munching away in the orchestral stables these past 200 years. The idea of holding every new thing up to the standard of ‘masterpiece’ or simply the ‘familiar’ probably does more to stifle music than any sinister machinations of the atonalists.

1 comment:

Jacque said...

Good answer. May I clarify two technical points?
Where you say "synthesizer" you really mean "sequencer." But only a geek like me would really be concerned about the difference -- your meaning is clear.
Also, I'll point out that not all Schoenberg is "atonal." It's true that his serial work is what he's best known for, but a work like Verklarte Nacht -- although straining at the bounds of chromatic romanticism -- is not a serial or atonal piece.
And on the heels of that, I'll toss in an opinion. Verklarte Nacht was written for string sextet, although it exists in an orchestral version. In my experience, works that introduce new musical techniques or vocabulary are far more successful when they use smaller forces: musicians who know each other a little more intimately can work through the difficulties and absorb ideas from each other. (That's hard to do when you're Horn IV or DoubleBass stand 3 and really, the communication is one-way from the podium.)
I think that a smaller group can work through the difficulties better, and I believe that the audience will perceive that.

Jacque