Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, April 07, 2013

Potemkin Village

 
The orchestral musician needs to know which things are bad and which are good. This usually applies to conductors and repertoire, but it easily spreads to soloists, critics, administrators, and a myriad of other things as well. A quick and easy aid to forming an opinion is to have a default setting, let's say any new thing is bad until it passes a litmus test to qualify for goodness. The reverse is of course true, albeit rare, as nobody wants to play the fool. Much lively debate goes on backstage as players take sides or work towards formulating opinions about the good and the bad. Some folks enjoy the verbal sparring. Others get less pleasure from it or become positively annoyed. If you take the debate too personally, it can be painful to see a sacred cow slaughtered on the altar of prevailing opinion; or else, hearing a perennial scapegoat suddenly elevated might bring on a sort of persecution mania, the feeling everyone around you has mysteriously taken leave of their senses and are all in league with each-other, plotting the downfall of music. As in the movies or literature, where the villainous are often more fascinating than the virtuous, discussing shortcomings proves more entertaining than singing praises, so sometimes it feels as if anyone who approves of anything is fighting a sort of rearguard action.
 
Events beyond the scope of this blog kept me from devoting a significant amount of forethought to my job, so the following concert kind of crept up on me, forcing me to make a snap judgment.
 
Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia
Khachaturian Flute Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
 
This has to be bad concert, right? - the great Russian chemist's Ode to the Caravan, Aram 'Catchy' Khachaturian's immortal (read: un-killable) concerto, the oft-repeated, tragicomic 4th symphony - surely this had to be the most craven catering to mass appeal. And, as nothing can be truly lofty without trampling on at least a few bourgeois toes, this concert tiptoeing around in stocking feet had to be contemptible in some way, didn't it? Of course, the predictably raucous audience reaction spoke otherwise. There were standing ovations for everything that ended loudly. I also talked to a few people who were at the concert and loved it. So, maybe it was a great concert, the customer always being right and all. So much for the default setting.
 
Going back in time another week, we see this concert on the books:
 
Wagner Siegfried Idyll
Schoenberg Violin Concerto
Mahler Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Wagner Prelude to Parsifal
 
Not quite your classic shit sandwich - maybe more like gefilte fish and koogle on a Kaiser Roll - this odd concoction was originally to have been conducted by Pierre Boulez. (Incidentally, seeing the names Barenboim and Boulez together on a program brought back so many feelings of nostalgia - I kept thinking of the song "That Old Black Magic".) Strangely enough, just like the Khachaturian, the Schoenberg also received a rousing standing ovation, although, to be fair, it was the only piece on the program that ended loudly. This might have been a trap set by the wily Boulez, who I imagined dreamed up this program as a way to slip 12-tone music to an audience and make them clap for it the way some people slip a pill to a dog and make him swallow it. And who can say why an audience erupts for a particular piece and not another? Sometimes the 'Standing O' might be simply honoring a weary soloist for having strutted an sweated his hour upon the stage. Or else folks are merely standing to don their winter coats, getting a jump on the traffic or the line for the restroom. Nevertheless, there you had it, people standing and clapping lustily after a piece by Schoenberg.
 
One can perform an interesting thought experiment if we extract the 'fillings' from these two sandwiches and examine them side by side. The Khachaturian and Schoenberg concertos have little enough in common, so that without a great deal of effort, one can construct all sorts of antipodal relationships, from neutral (tonal/atonal), to opinionated (accessible/indecipherable), and on to the scathing (beloved/trash). Holding these 'antipodes' in the mind for as long as one can endure, it is an interesting experience to suddenly imagine a reality in which they were merged, where the irreconcilable is mysteriously and magically reconciled. Not exactly a religious experience, in fact, some would merely call it being open minded, but interesting all the same.
 
One sign an institution might be circling the drain is the encroachment of the so-called 'Pops' concert. 'Pops', which I believe derives from 'popular' somehow, suggests what is normally on offer might be 'not popular' - kind of an admission of defeat right out of the gate. Scheduling more 'Pops' is a way to sell tickets by supposedly giving people what they really want, which is something different from what is usually on the program, thus reenforcing the notion people don't want what you are trying to sell them. The 'Pops' strategy works, up to a point. When more people buy tickets to hear Schubert than Schoenberg, our sense of righteousness is upheld. But when still more come to hear Sondheim or Star Wars, regret sets in, and the audience, who we previously trusted, has now gone over to the dark side. Once the tail has started wagging the dog, it is hard to get it to stop. The fatal mistake might be in underestimating the taste and tolerance of the audience and playing down to that. The reactions to two quite different sandwich fillings over the past couple weeks has to be a positive sign that audiences are willing and able to demonstrate a little open mindedness.

2 comments:

nocynic said...

In my family, we always spelled it "Kugel".
I would propose a slightly different angle on the "popular/unpopular" debate. Occasionally in history, absolutely first-rate art has been created for a more-or-less general audience that totally got it. Mozart operas, Haydn Symphonies. Stravinsky's three early ballets, despite the mythology that has developed Re initial riots at "Le Sacre", sold out the house for innumerable performances. I would put Ellington and The Beatles in this category; some may disagree. I might also mention Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.
I see this as the ultimate goal of art--to create something extraordinary that nonetheless appeals to the intended audience. I would argue that both Khachaturian (or John Williams) and Schoenberg fall a bit short by this yardstick, for opposite reasons.

Andrew said...

I thought Pops' was derived from tree sap.