Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Beyond the call

A colleague all but begged me to write more about Beyond the Score. I suspect this not so much because I have anything of merit to say on the subject as his desire get in some ‘batting practice’ on my softball observations, so here goes…

It occurred to me that while the BTS presentations certainly do inform and enlighten our audience, getting the public interested in a work like The Planets is kind of like getting horses interested in oats (or whatever horses normally eat). You might entertain the herd with a lengthy and engaging description of the molecular structure of oats and why this makes them tasty and nutritious, but the horses leave the barn essentially the same way they came in; they like oats.

Why not take one of those reviled compositions by Schoenberg, Boulez, or Carter – composers this organization has ostensibly championed over the last few decades – and devote a presentation to one of them? Schoenberg’s serial techniques, probably only vaguely understood by audiences who, fearing what they do not know, must regard them as some kind of foul sorcery or witchcraft capable of transforming a warm and comfortable concert hall into a chamber of musical horrors, would make for a compelling graphic visual presentation. His paintings, numerology and triskaidekaphobia all could be woven into a fascinating subplot. Who knows, we might even convince a few people (maybe even musicians) to listen to something with a fresh set of ears.


From the Second City said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Given that these concerts routinely sell out, I think we can forgo having an even more in-depth understanding of Tchaikovksy or Mozart, and try to appreciate something we don't already appreciate. Convincing a horse to eat rice, now there's a project.

nocynic said...

I would be very curious as to who attends Beyond The Score. Is it our regular audience? If so, then you make a good point--talking up our Greatest Hits is gilding the lily. But to me the audience looks younger, and I do not recognize the faces of our Subscription Lifers in attendance. I wonder how many people would show up for a Schoenberg BTS, or if they would enjoy the music even after the lecture. I can usually follow many of the Tone Row permutations, and I must confess that very little atonal music has any emotional resonance with me. I think we will succeed in Iraq before the Second Viennese School is standard repertoire...At some point I think we may have to acknowledge that the issue may be the music itself, not the yahoos listening to it. I was in some waiting room a while back and leafing through a Sports Illustrated lying there. They asked four prominent young athletes who their favorite classical musician was. Two said "Nobody", one said "Frank Sinatra", one offered Otis Redding. We may need BTS more than we know, even for Mozart and Tchaikowsky.

Gabrielle said...

wasn't miraculous mandarin a previous BTS subject? that's a somewhat less tonal work, though certainly not shoenberg. i agree with max, i'm not sure that a schoenberg BTS would attract a good crowd. hardcore classical music aficionados might not be the kind of people who attend BTS concerts, since they might prefer the regular concerts or feel that BTS presents them with information they already know. but i don't know, since i've never been to one. i did see clips of the MM one online.

i think maybe the pieces chosen need to have a certain balance. i agree that perhaps the planets is too well-known a work. but MM made a good subject, i think, so perhaps music more along that line would be appropriate: not a warhorse, but not too demanding, either. perhaps a shostakovich symphony (four has a pretty fascinating history and isn't performed as often). actually, a major work by any number of composers that simply isn't as well known as some of their other music. a respighi tone poem that isn't the pines of rome (queen of sheba or the gnome one?), sibelius's kullervo?

as far as young athletes go, well, i will never be a big football fan and i'm OK with that (though for heaven's sake i think i could list the name of at least one pro footballer or team!) . some people are not classical music fans and maybe we should be OK with that, too. but BTS should attract people who know a little about classical music and are interested in learning more.

Anonymous said...

I'm a composer, and I have been in the audience at symphony concerts where the conductor takes the time to discuss and demonstrate the nature of the contemporary work to be played, and my experience has been that it as always been a great success. Most recent was enjoying that as a feature of a performance of "Turangalila." That's sort of a self-selecting audience to begin with, and maybe not the ideal test case.

However, several years ago I went to a concert of the SF Symphony that featured Mozart's Requiem and, for my special interest, Scelsi's Aion. The hall was packed, and you can guess what the attraction was. Think about the juxtaposition of the pieces for a moment! I had never heard Scelsi before, and Tilson Thomas came out and gave a brief overview of the piece, of Scelsi's goals in the work, and had some of the musicians demonstrate just what microtonality means when played. Then, the performance, which had me gripped and my heart racing. At the end, thunderous ovation.

I cannot think of a more alien, challenging work to present to an audience, and it can be done. MTT of course has a special talent for this, and he's done it with Ives and Berg too, but even the most difficult, unfamiliar music can be presented to a general audience if you can give their ears something to listen for and hang on to. Just give people a way in, and trust them to step inside and look around.

stefan said...

I have fond memories of a concert with your "big" orchestra last December where Mark Elder conducted the 5 Pieces for Orchestra by Webern and invited the audience to stay after the concert for a repeat performance. Several hundred people (!) stayed. Elder talked a little bit about each piece, with examples, and then the orchestra played them again. Everybody I talked to liked this small extra lecture+concert and thought differently about the little pieces afterwards (I actually ended up doing the unthinkable and buying Webern's complete output on CD - nothing to listen to in the car, but a lot of it quite touching if one puts the time into it). Bottom line, I think outreach can be done (and should be done) with the Second Viennese School. Berg in particular has written lots of music that can touch people deeply, it just takes a little bit more effort. Levine in NY has always done a heroic job of exposing people to this music, and I think people accept it in the end. So yes, a BTS about Schoenberg/Berg/Webern would be great, and I would definitely go.

andy giller said...

Gabrielle mentioned Shostakovich who I think works well for these type of things because a lot of musicians love to perform his music, but not as many audience members are into listening to it. (This surprised me, maybe because I'm naive. I thought everybody loved Shostakovich) Anyway, we did a Beyond the Score thing (I don't remeber what we called it) down at New World with MTT on Shostakovich 5. I never remember getting as intense and immediate a positive reaction as we got that night. It made me feel that maybe some people out there were "getting" Shostakovich for the first time. Sometimes the audience needs a little help, even with some of the "war horses" like Shosty 5.