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In Praise of Folly

New York
Weill Recital Hall
10/31/2002 -  
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Ennio Morricone: Three Duets
Luciano Berio: from 34 Duos
Sofia Gubaidulina: Meditation on a Chorale by J.S. Bach
George Enescu: Piano Quintet # 2

Kremerata Musica

“…someday we won’t even have to make a movie-there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’ and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?”

Alfred Hitchcock to Ernest Lehman, from
The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto

After the revolution of 1848 decimated artistic institutions in Paris, Hector Berlioz experimented with creating his own Philharmonic Society and passionately wished to use it as a vehicle to present the work of living composers. Not only as a struggling creator but also as a journalist, Berlioz felt a holy obligation to foster the acceptance of the contemporary and win over doggedly conservative audiences to the spirit of the age. Curiously, however, the period of the 1850’s was haunted by a hollow dearth of musical expression. Mendelssohn and Chopin had just died, as had Berlioz’ hero at the Opera, Spontini. Schumann was crippled by mental illness and Liszt by virtuosity. Wagner was busy running from the law while Brahms was still honing his skills. Both would emerge in the next decade as twin giants who would usher in the golden age, but, practically speaking, Berlioz found himself at this time unable to flush out even one legitimate work for concert presentation besides his own, leaving him open to charges of favoritism and immodesty (of the latter of which he was gloriously guilty). The society failed and he left for London as the midpoint of the century served as a caesura between two Olympian periods.

Concert programmers of the new millennium face a similar dilemma and can only shake their heads in disbelief when realizing that a similar black hole exactly 100 years later ushered in another period of aridity. When that trigger-happy American soldier murdered Anton Webern outside of his apartment in post-war Vienna, the drought began. Berlioz only had to wait a few years before becoming inspired and heartened by the activity around him (he was one of the first to be privy to the incipient scores of The Ring), but those of us who have been patiently waiting for new music of quality are now past the golden anniversary stage. In fact, many would argue that almost all of the music of any import post 1950 has been the logical conclusion of careers already long established (the late symphonies of Shostakovich, for example). With the shining exception of Benjamin Britten and some scattered doings in Northern Italy, the second half of the 20th century was the age not of anxiety but mediocrity.

But the principles beloved of Berlioz have not changed. It is perhaps even more important in our current pop culture dominated era to steadfastly introduce new music to the public, but therein lies the dilemma. Narrowing the focus to the plight of American orchestras, the pool of prospective pieces seems to have only a shallow end. Ignoring the crabbed world of academic serialism, designed to be audience unfriendly, the bulk of contemporary music in this country is little more than a rehash of the most cynical Hollywood formulae: manipulation for its own sake. The obligatory opening modern piece is now a standard part of concert structure. The work is always presented first, relegating it to the status of a time waster designed to allow the late-comers to be seated before the real music begins. Ultimately, economic realities supercede artistic niceties: at a recent Cleveland Orchestra performance in New York wherein contemporary music was given center stage, tickets were desperately being given away at the last minute to avoid the impression that nobody cared to attend (and, as if living composers weren’t already snakebit, this was the concert where Maestro von Dohnanyi went to cue his piano soloist only to discover that she wasn’t there!). Carnegie Hall underwrites its own fine contemporary ensemble, the American Composers Orchestra, but they play to virtually empty spaces, even with severely reduced ticket prices. Force-feeding seems to be the only answer, except that the broccoli slipped in with the steak has already had all of its nutrients boiled out of it. And, with the plight of the arts executive already bleak enough, there is a constant drumbeat from the press in this town that polemically subscribes to the simple if ridiculous assumption that if it’s new it must be good. One wonders whether if these scribblers had employed quills instead of palm pilots, they would have reviewed the works of Albrechtsberger, Hummel and Czerny as being the equal of those of Beethoven.

The scene outside of the US is apparently not too encouraging either, at least if the evidence submitted last evening by Kremerata Musica is any indicator. The piece by Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov was repetitive and superficial, the Morricone pretty but vacuous (he is a refugee from the spaghetti western factory) and the Gubaidulina just noise and tired effects. One woman tried to arouse the crowd with a standing ovation for this particular performance (if this were Riga, I would have assumed that she was one of the musician’s mothers), but the rest of us, as demonstrated by our tepid applause, just weren’t buying it. Only the Berio was rich in musical thought and value, but I for one was not at all disappointed that Mr. Kremer and acolyte stopped after 7 duos. To be sure, the dedication and skill of these young instrumentalists was admirable, only some of the viola work a little pudgy for my taste, and it was especially heartening to note that those who were not performing a particular piece would come out and sit with the paying customers in order to hear their comrades. However, so much preparation to produce so little impact seemed almost perverse.

After the interval, we could all breathe a little easier as we were feted to an excellent performance of the Enescu. At least, it seemed to be a quality reading; perhaps I was just transported by the phenomenon of actually hearing real music again.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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