The Land of Cleves

Recently Mrs Arepo and I spent some time in the Cleveland area. Naturally, I decided to take the opportunity to check out the local criticism scene; unfortunately our hosts do not take the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Forced to the intertubes, I found the Plain Dealer’s classical music critic and read an interesting column:

“Cleveland Orchestra’s plans for opera, centennial have Eurocentric ring”

Huh, I wondered, what’s that all about?

Much of the news about the Cleveland Orchestra that poured from Severance Hall recently in a single press release verged on the momentous:

Franz Welser-MÖst's contract extended to 2018. Education programs to be expanded. Orchestra to perform centennial commissions. Staged opera to return to Severance Hall. Miami Ballet to appear with the orchestra at Blossom.

First, that sounds fantastic. It’d be great to live in a place with such a vibrant arts scene. Second, I marvel at the inability of a major civic newspaper to be able to manage to make lower-case o’s with umlauts. (This of course does not reflect on the critic.)

You get the drift. A slew of hopeful projects is in the works. Many could prove to be vital contributions to our musical life.

Yes, yes I do get the drift. Go on…

But hold on. Before we pop corks in artistic celebration, let's take a closer look at two of these endeavors: commissions and opera. They're exciting, if also conventional. And they happen to be almost uniformly Eurocentric.


First, commissions. The centennial project of five world premieres leading to the orchestra's 100th season in 2018 is itself admirable. Orchestras and audiences are in constant need of replenishment through works by composers who savor the colors and expressive richness a mass of instruments can produce.

I heartily applaud the commissioning of new works. Composers are, by and large, in need of commissions. (At least the ones I know are.)

By looking forward, however, the orchestra actually is going retro. In 1958, the institution celebrated its 40th anniversary with a commissioning project of 10 works.

Um, okay?

George Szell led the nine 1958 premieres (one was delayed), just as music director Welser-MÖst is expected to conduct the centennial scores by Marc-André Dalbavie, Osvaldo Golijov, HK Gruber, Matthias Pintscher and Kaija Saariaho. Although this group is distinguished, each composer has had a work performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in the past decade - none is American. Others deserve a creative shot.

Along with the composers in the centennial project, the orchestra's programs in coming seasons will bring premieres by Britain's Julian Anderson, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen, Austria's Johannes Maria Staud and Germany's JÖrg Widmann. The sole new American work next season, Paul Chihara's viola concerto, will be led by Jahja Ling.

Aside from Chihara's concerto, subscription audiences next season will hear music by only three other Americans (John Adams, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives). Two others, Sean Shepherd and August Read Thomas, will be relegated to a single new-music concert led by Knussen.

Orchestras have a duty to perform music by composers of many nations and styles. An American orchestra should pay more than passing attention to its own country's composers, including such established and rising figures as William Bolcom, John Harbison, Nico Muhly and Ollie Wilson.

Ah, there’s the rub. And I think I mostly agree.

While it seems that one would want the highest quality works possible, regardless of country of origin, several factors make me want to have commissions for more works by Americans.

First, American composers are highly under-represented in many orchestras in the US. Second, there is a general public lack of knowledge about American composers from the last hundred years or so. Third, many European countries have better public/governmental support for the arts than we (to say the least) and we should get American composers some recognition for their work. Fourth, we need to expose young composers and their idioms to the public, too.

(Nothing negative, but I doubt Bill Bolcolm and John Harbison need the money at this point.)

So, yeah, in the balance, I agree. What do y’all think?

Oh. Sorry. I had one sentence with which to take issue.

Who wouldn't look forward to hearing the Cleveland Orchestra, a longtime aristocrat in Mozart, play three of his greatest operas with the accompaniment of sets, costumes and lighting?

“An aristocrat in Mozart”? In? Can one be an aristocrat “in” things?

Also, who ever heard of an opera “with the accompaniment of sets, costumes, and lighting?”?

Ah, gentle ribbing. Good article though. Read the whole thing and let us know what you think.


Empiricus said...

Didn't mean to jump on your post, bro. Sorry. Still though, where's Waldo?

I think you bring up an interesting question. Should American orchestras have an obligation or, at least, a sense of duty(?) to program American composers? The answer is: I don't know.

One, I'm not entirely sure that the world is all that large anymore, what with the intertubes and other communication-like devices, necessitating a quasi-nationalistic approach to programming. But I do understand the different circumstances of the political and financial structures in which people write music. In that sense, American composers need all the help they can get.

If the question were of quality, as it was in the early part of the 20th century, then maybe orchestras should look elsewhere. Though, I don't think that's the case. So the question becomes, "Can the orchestra program an American in a financially beneficial way, without sacrificing quality?" Unfortunately, that's not my specialty, so I don't know.

Two, it's really hard to fault the Cleveland Orchestra for programming a boat-load of new work. That's really cool, especially for an orchestra that has the reputation of being a bit stodgy. So congrats to them.

Wheee! I still don't know the answer.

Gustav said...

Commissions equal a Big F***ing Yeah! Good for the Cleveland Orchestra. But I couldn't agree more with the author's point. Hate to go all jingoistic on the this blog, but if American performing ensembles don't support classical music composition here in the States, then who will. Europe? Try to control your laughter. I'm not sure how to say this nicely, but Europeans in general are the snobbiest bunch of snobs that ever did snob where classical music is concerned. I've heard more than one European musician compare American music to some sort of animal dropping.

How about going east? Well, I've never heard of single major Asian ensemble commissioning an American composer. Not to say it doesn't and hasn't happened, but my spidey sense doesn't tingle about that one.

Now this isn't to say that American orchestras shouldn't be worldly and biased towards the best music available, because it should be. There are dozens of underperformed and extrodinarily talented composers much closer to home that deserve the opportunities. It's the stuff of home field advantages.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but your failure to note the misspelling of OLLY Wilson's first name obligates you to make him a composer of the day.

Empiricus said...

Awesome suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Dude, I only do awesome.