If You Don't Eat Your Meat, How Can You Have Any Pudding?

The concert program as a hermeneutic object has been, until pretty recently, not all that interesting to me. Usually, it seems, the organizing idea behind a concert program is about as interesting as "all the pieces are sort of about planets!" or "all the composers probably liked flowers".

Figure 1: An astonishingly original idea for your next Obligatory Jocular Costume party.

However, I'm coming around a bit. So, when thinking about a concert as a text to be interpreted, consideration is given not only to the pieces programmed, but the order in which they're presented. This can lead to more interesting issues, such as those raised recently in this review:

Visitors from Vienna Bring Both the Pastoral and the Not-So-Pastoral
(James R. Oestreich, New York Times, 1/27/2010)

However, as with all things hermeneutic, the license to interpret is easily carried too far. I'm not sure that's the case here, but it's something of which to be wary.

Programming symphonic concerts is too often done to formula, the lamest, nowadays, being overture, concerto, intermission, symphony.

Agreed, and point taken.

I'll also take this opportunity to note that Messiaen's "Intermission with Bird Songs, Traffic Noise, and Cigarettes" is my favorite work in that underrated genre.

If anything more challenging can be slipped by the marketing department, it is tucked somewhere inside to avoid encouraging patrons to arrive late or leave early.

Why would the marketing department care when you come or go if they sell you a ticket?


Oh, wait: I forgot to put on my hermeneutic hat!

Figure 2a: Apparently, literally every fucking thing in the world is available on a hat at CafePress.*

Figure 2b: Seriously?! What the hell?

That's better. Let's try this again.

If anything more challenging can be slipped by the marketing department, it is tucked somewhere inside to avoid encouraging patrons to arrive late or leave early.

Besides privileging the Romantic-transcendent cultural paradigm by placing the hierarchical, canonic works at the marked positions of the beginning and end of the concert, this programming strategy further others the "challenging" work by "tucking" it away (or "slipping" it in) between the metaphorical legs of the event-body, resulting in a gendered construction that patriarchally confines the transgressive or dangerous pieces out-of-sight.

Wait. What?

Oh, hell. That was my New Musicology hat.

Figure 3: Apologies to Dr. Susan McClary, Distinguished Professor of Musicology at UCLA.**

Where is that blasted hat?

[rifles through the hat closet at Detritus Towers]

Maybe this is it?

If anything more challenging can be slipped by the marketing department, it is tucked somewhere inside to avoid encouraging patrons to arrive late or leave early.

It sounds like the marketing department is trying to prevent the protrusion into reality of the real by sublimating the object-cause of its desire.

Gah. That's not it, either.

Figure 4: Objet petit a

Ah, screw it. No hat, then. I'll have to proceed with only my meager, Cthulhu-given interpretive skills.

The Vienna Philharmonic, in its three programs conducted by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez at Carnegie Hall over the weekend, managed to present a lot of challenging material: substantial works by Arnold Schoenberg in each concert, a piece by Anton Webern, another by Mr. Boulez.

I am, I think, firmly on the record as being in favor of this programming.

And at least at the first concert, on Friday evening, the order of the program represented a small triumph of musical values over marketing wimpiness.

Ah, now we're talking. Let's do some goddamn interpretation! Who's with me?

Mr. Barenboim offered a quick historical jaunt, from the bedrock harmonies of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony through the unmoored and disintegrating tonalities of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” to the 12-tone machinations of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31), and it made for a rich and illuminating experience.

I would totally go to that concert. So, Mr. Oestreich, why the preamble about the programming?

But as much sense as that ordering made, it was by no means inevitable.

So the chronological order of the program made sense, as the structure of the concert mirrored the linear, unidirectional flow of time. But, crucially, it was not inevitable.

It's the cutting edge: considering performing pieces not in the order in which they were composed.

The program book, in fact, listed an earlier version,

Ah. Now that's interesting!

...with the mildly intractable Schoenberg work coming before the lush payoff of the Wagner.

Bucking the positivist, rational, linear logic of chronology in favor of the aforementioned "marketer's choice" arrangement.

So, to be clear: The program listed the Schoenberg as the middle work, but it was actually the last on the concert.

An insert sheet gave the revised order, evidently arrived at late,

A fair interpretation.

...and you could almost see the always provocative hand of the headstrong Mr. Barenboim at work in it.

Only a Maestro could have conceived of (provocatively) re-ordering the program at the last minute? To chronologically?

He virtually confirmed as much at the end of the evening when he conspiratorially announced the encore,

Wait wait wait.

There was an encore? This absolutely and drastically affects any close reading of the program. What was it, for Azathoth's sake?

Figure 5: Azathoth, the Insane Outer God at the Center of the Universe. We are all naught but his dreams of dancing. (Duh.)

...Johann Strauss’s “Thunder and Lightning” Polka, “for you and for those who left before the Schoenberg.”

Ha. That's great.

If and only if you stayed for the Schoenberg, which was strategically moved to the end of the program, you got a lollipop.

I take it all back. That's out-fucking-standing.***

*Gratuitous profanity indicates here that I am in no way advertising--or even advocating--for or against this company.

**The music school at UCLA is called the Herb Alpert School of Music, which is almost unbearably awesome. It's a fact; you can look it up.

Figure Anhang: A supplement implies a structural lack.

***This profanity is emphatic, and more elaborative than structural.


Gustav said...

Pink Floyd references and Messiaen jokes = epic win.

And since when do shitty Strauss polkas count as treats in classical music? Seriously, that's the last thing I want to hear at the symphony.

Fred said...

Another program option which James Levine has used in Boston several times over the past few years - serial monstrosity which takes up all the rehearsal time on the first half and beloved warhorse the orchestra can (and sometimes will) play in their sleep after intermission (actual example: Babbitt's Transfigured Notes / Dvorak New World Symphony)