Let's Don't Apologize for Contemporary Music

They have orchestras in Montana now?

Figure 1: Montana, not Montana. Also, music, not this.

All kidding aside, it's great that the arts are thriving in some smaller communities. Perhaps the financial model and expectations of the audience, players, and cities are more viable than the big, struggling dinosaurs. And they're getting more adventurous, too, which is great.

Which is why I mostly liked this article:

Symphony's season finale hints at transformation ahead

but have a little problem, too. Introducing people to new "classical" music shouldn't be tortuous to reader or reviewer (or listener, for that matter).

It has been almost exactly two years since the Missoula Symphony Orchestra named Darko Butorac its new conductor and artistic director. Sunday's concert by the MSO served as a strong testament to all that has changed at the orchestra since his appointment - and a harbinger of further transformations.

Um, good? I hope that's good. It sounds like it might be good; sometimes harbingers can be portents of a more ominous sort (arguably). It sounds good, though.

For its season finale two years ago, in a concert conducted by Anthony Spain (one of five conductors who vied for the position that Butorac ultimately won), the orchestra performed one of the most celebrated works of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

Two years ago? Why that's the span of time you mentioned in the first paragraph! What's new?

In Sunday's concert, the orchestra revisited Shostakovich with an account of his precocious First Symphony... [snip] Yet compared to that performance two years ago - when the orchestra struggled with intonation for most of the first movement, and with tempo for much of the fourth - this was a concert on an entirely different level.

Excellent! So it was good.

Gone, for the most part, are the intonation problems, thin string sound, and ensemble unity issues that once were fairly common at MSO concerts. In their place is a full-bodied, beautifully blended string sound, and an orchestra that moves as one under Butorac's baton, often with exhilarating results.

It sounds like the orchestra has improved drastically over that time, and is reaching into the early 20th century repertoire. If these are the aforementioned harbingers, perhaps my fears about the return of Zombie Emperor Constantine were unfounded.

That is excellent news. Zombie Emperor Constantine is reportedly kind of a prick.

But wait! There's more!

Rounding out the program was Christopher Theofanidis' short orchestral work, “Rainbow Body.”

Dang, that's downright contemporary. If Shostakovich is new ground, this is a pretty big leap for the orchestral program and, one might guess, for the audience. This is also outstanding, I think.

Here is an excerpt
from the beginning of the piece I found on the composer's website. Here is a picture that is fun to look at:

Figure 2: Christopher Theofanidis. He teaches at Peabody.

If you've not heard of the composer or the music, you're forgiven: This was the first reading of the piece by a Montana orchestra.

Oof. Let's not apologize, or rather absolve. It smacks both of pandering elitism to and distrust of the audience.

Clearly, one's audience is important, and the good people of Missoula have perhaps, or even likely, not heard of Theofanidis. I'm not advocating (for instance) throwing a bunch of technical jargon in the review for no reason, but the apologetic stance comes across as weak or unsure.

Written less than 10 years ago, “Rainbow Body” has become one of a handful of oft-performed modern works, having been played now by more than 70 orchestras around the world.

Yeah, see. Now you've "forgiven" the reader for not having heard of the piece, which is "
one of a handful of oft-performed modern works" and therefore sort of famous.

Also, the assertion that it is in fact "
one of a handful of oft-performed modern works" is vague and troubling, and seems more like promotion than anything. But that's not really important...

It was the only work in the MSO's 2008-2009 season written in the past 50 years.

That fact that this sentence comprises an entire paragraph is an effective way to promote interest in the piece, I think, better than the assertion in the previous sentence.

Built on a simple melody credited to the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen, “Rainbow Body” exhibits none of the characteristics that have made “modern music” such a dangerous label in the classical concert hall.

Oops, back to apologizing for music again; not this piece, though. "Rainbow Body" isn't like that awful stuff that's the reason we don't program/consume/understand/like "modern music" in the first place.

The intent, again, seems to be to not scare off the audience. It would be better, perhaps, to ask them to listen instead.

Though the piece features a few dissonant tone clusters and unusual rhythms here and there, those features only add sparkling effect to the music's overarching consonance.

Clearly. Because all music before 1900 consisted entirely of tonic arpeggios, until in 1908 Schoenberg invented the non-chord tone.

Figure 3: You bastard!

Inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist belief that enlightened people turn to pure light upon death, the short work takes an almost episodic approach to musically depicting light: Here it sparkles, here it beams, here it glows all around. In the end, light seems to rain down in cascades, with the musicians of the orchestra sighing vocally as they play.

Good. Fine.

Despite the music's unusual challenges, the MSO played it like an old favorite, with a sense of purpose that clearly stirred the audience, which responded with a mix of enthusiastic applause and surprised chatter.

Even before their absolution?

In the lobby during intermission, several excited conversations about Theofanidis' work could be overheard.

Even before they read the review promising them not to be scared of the "modern music?"

Yes! Yes, a thousand times yes.*

*Actual concert attendance figures unavailable at press time.

It was a sign of the times. Under Butorac, the MSO has changed the conversation about classical music in Missoula.

That's fantastic. Generally intellegent and open-minded (one likes to think optimistically), people don't need apologies for new music. Hooray!

It looks to follow that trajectory next season, with performances of three similarly acclaimed contemporary works...as well as several of the most powerful and challenging works in the orchestral repertoire.


The future looks bright indeed.

I hope so, too. Let's be optimistic.


AnthonyS said...

For the sake of a correct record, Theofanidis now teaches at Yale.

Sator Arepo said...

Thanks AnthonyS! That's what I had thought, but all the stuff I found was at his Peabody website.

Gustav said...

Don't forget, SA, the audience probably needs absolution. The mob is a fickle-headed bunch who feel stupid when they don't know something.

However, much has been written about how to make classical music and orchestra solvent in this country -- may I suggest that one step be to take all the money from orchestras of which this -- "it was the only work in the MSO's 2008-2009 season written in the past 50 years" -- is true and give it to the non-museum orchestras.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gustav the Totalitarian for the stupid suggestion.

Gustav said...

You're welcome.

But please, I prefer Gustav the Unholy.

Anonymous said...

If I call you Gustav the Unholy will it keep me off the one-way boxcar to camp?

AnthonyS said...

Gustav the Unholy lives on a mountain of skulls, in the castle of pain, and sits on a throne of blood.

Ironically, his one-way boxcars display the lastest in sleek, Swedish hypermodern design.

Anonymous said...

Wow Anthony! I did not know. Swedish design. It all makes sense now.