NY Phil Music Director: The Symphony Is Boring

I’m a little confused and more than a bit perturbed by Alan Gilbert, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic.

New York’s Date with the End of Time
(Matthew Gurewitsch, New York Times, 5/18/2010)

When an opera company performs an opera in concert, it is cutting to the bone.

I guess. It’s also kind of like they’re doing their jobs and performing the function for which the company was designed. “When a butcher chops up a dead cow, it is cutting to the bone.”

When a symphony orchestra does the same thing, it is reaching for the stars.

Ah, I see. So:

Opera Music > Orchestral Repertoire

…which is a pretty stupid thing to say. Not to mention indefensible.

The players can spread their wings in glamorous regions they rarely get to explore.

Unlike pedantic old symphonic composers, opera composers infuse their music with unicorns, rainbows, and fairy droppings. What the fuck?

Audiences share the thrill of fresh discovery, whether the repertory is standard or the rarest of the rare.


Any old opera rep, even standard fare > Any fucking piece of symphonic music ever

…including wonderful new works, or even the best piece ever written (Bruckner 6, obviously).

Does it matter if the singers are barricaded behind music stands?

Um…yes? Probably?

Or should the concert hall simulate the production values of an actual opera house?

Yeah, y’know…we already have opera houses, and they’re not playing symphonies and tone poems and stuff. Because, you see, those don’t need any staging. Unlike operas, which require…

I mean: come on.

What are we even talking about?

Over the years many symphonic institutions have tried, with inconclusive results.

That is some Grade-A research right there.

In his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert is pursuing a more experimental, potentially more exciting, agenda.

I am for experimental and potentially exciting agendas [agendums?]. But why would (arguably) the best orchestra in the country want to pretend to be an opera orchestra?

For the New York premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Grand Macabre,” opening a three-night run on Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall, he has opted for a portable multimedia staging by the diminutive production company Giants Are Small, based in Sunset Park, a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I mean: okay. Barriers are breaking down between genres, and innovation is cool. But did Gilbert really, really want the Met job, and settle for the NY Phil gig just because it was there?

“I want to bring the visual element into the concert hall in an appropriate way,” Mr. Gilbert said recently in his studio at Avery Fisher Hall.

So…not pictures of planets while playing Holst? (Or Strauss, for that matter?)

“Opera staged in concert makes you think differently about the spaces in which you hear symphonic music.”

Fair enough, I suppose, and even interesting, but I don’t think I like where this is going.

“It develops the orchestra’s narrative facility.”

It…okay. And that’s good? I mean, narrativity is one of the things music engages, evokes, and/or implies. But it’s not the sine qua non or anything.

“Orchestras should be telling stories all the time.”

Oh, hell no.

That’s the dumbest, most pandering, thinnest, most one-sided facile view of music I’ve ever heard.

This guy is seriously the new director of the NY Phil?

Because: You know who “should be telling stories all the time”?


Figure 1: Tantamount to the Symphony.

It seems to me that orchestras should be playing music all the time, or we wouldn’t have a different word for “storytellers.”

Look, it sounds like an interesting production, and the Ligeti in question’s never been performed in New York, so I’m all for it. All in all, I couldn’t be more supportive of this effort.

But let’s drop the all-music-tells-a-story bit, shall we? That’s for third graders.


Gustav said...

What a strange article. Alan Gilbert obviously ate paint chips in music school. However, I'm willing to forgive a lot in this case because he's programming Ligeti's Grand Macabre opera, and not some piece of shit by Donizetti.

And, "opera composers infuse their music with unicorns, rainbows, and fairy droppings". Exactly.

Howard Mandel said...

I suspect the you didn't actualy go to see “Grand Macabre" at thew NYPO - if you had your reservations would have seemed irrelevent to you. The NYPO has traditionaly done operas each season, some concert versions, some semi-staged. Many symphony orchestras do. The Vienna Philharmonic also plays at the Vienna State Opera. The Met Opera Orchestra (truly the best orchestra in the country, btw) does a non-opera concerts at Carnegie Hall. You see barriers where none exist.

Sator Arepo said...


I don't see any barriers to this kind of concert; in fact, quite the opposite. I applaud the NY Phil for programming the Ligeti, and would love to see it.

I have no issue with orchestras attempting or programming this sort of concert at all. The issues I took issue with [sic] were different.

What I see as a problem is:

1) The glorification or elevation of operatic music as somehow "above" other concert repertoire; and

2) The insistence on narrativity/"storytelling" as the primary or most superior way of regarding *all* music.

That is silly, and harmful in its oversimplification, like explaining all philosophy according to the Golden Rule.

Empiricus said...

I know, but missed, "Le Grand Macabre," so I can't speak to its awesomeness, via the surefire treatment the NYP gave it. But, if Mr. Gilbert insisted on a story, I'd be lost somewhere near the happy lovers' post-nuclear boasting.

Empiricus said...

...something third-graders might not appreciate.

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