Guilty on One Charge of Puffery and One Charge of Lying under Oath

Let it be said that when you write something like this:

Never let it be said that S.F. Classical Music Examiner goes in for puff pieces.

...I’ll assume the opposite.

Now, to be clear, the Wictionary dictionary, as do all of the other dictionaries, defines “puff piece” as...

A journalistic form of puffery; an article or story of exaggerated praise that often ignores or downplays opposing viewpoints of evidence to the contrary.

The San Francisco Classical Music Examiner? Never going in for puff pieces? Yeah right!

Modern critics typically speak of traditional programming as focusing on those "basic 50 pieces", to paraphrase Virgil Thomson.

That is, if Virgil Thompson is a modern critic: he died in 1989, but stopped writing critiques for the New York Herald Tribune in 1954 [1951?]).

Nobody denies that those works continue to deserve an honored place on concert programs; they're classics for a reason. But what, exactly, constitutes "innovation"?

You see where he’s going with this? He’s going to define “innovation,” then he’s going to “insert ensemble here.” But first, a misstep.

More often than not, "innovative" is little more than a code word for "programming contemporary music." As such, ensembles boasting of their "innovative" programs have little to brag about, really...

But, no. That’s wrong. They brag about being innovative, because most ensembles don’t regularly play new music. The opposite used to be the case, as our author pointed out earlier. However, it’s no longer true. So bragging about being innovative is only comparative to their contemporaries, dummy.

So what can we identify as real innovation in the early 21st century?

Those gigantic, meaty italics are all Scott Fogelsong’s, not mine.

I propose San Francisco's New Century Chamber Orchestra as an exemplar of the modern ensemble that avoids both dry rot and cliché, while at the same time recognizes that innovation cannot thrive without a solid foundation.

Wikipedia offers this definition of puffery:

Puffery as a legal term refers to promotional statements and claims that express subjective rather than objective views, such that no reasonable person would take literally.

But I digress, Scott. How are they innovative, again?

[...] the New Century [Chamber Orchestra] enjoys a perspective that recognizes the worth of the traditional canon, yet enriches that repertory by reaching out and over those arbitrary boundaries between contemporary, traditional, classical, world, and popular music.

So, schlocky eclecticism equals innovative?

So, for example, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (standard rep if ever there were) will be paired with Bernard Herrmann's famed score for Psycho for the May 2009 program of night music, called "Shadows and Light", while a December program partners Bach with holiday music from around the globe.

But that sounds like my high school orchestra and chorus—challenge the kids to expand their horizons and give the parents something to enjoy.

As Monroe [the NCCO executive director] puts it: "they are coming to be challenged, and they are also coming to be pleased."

Just in case you forgot, dear reader, we’re talking about unsubstantiated praise. The NNCO is being praised for being “real” innovators, while my high school music program was just as daring. Italics mine.

All of this marvelous creative thinking doesn't guarantee the NCCO a slam-dunk, alas.

And they’re not all that creative, either.

For one thing, our economy is running a bit shakily at present. For another, the New Century isn't the only imaginative ensemble in this Bay Area of ours, a place with a long-standing tradition of subverting tradition.

So they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, innovative. Go figure.

But I, for one, will be astonished if this forthcoming season turns out to be anything less than a grand success.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someday Wikipedia has an entry for “puffer,” one who engages in puffery, with a picture of Scott Fogelsong in the upper right-hand corner.


Gustav said...

Bach, and holiday music from around the globe? That sounds dreadful. High school orchestra concert is dead on -- we all know that the Holiday concert at Spiro Agnew Middle School is the must attend musical event of the year. Everyone who is anyone will surely be there.

Schlocky eclecticism, indeed. It's as though the whole music industry has been taken over by people who don't know anything about music, and also seem to not like music all that much either.

Here's innovative -- play good music. Just because Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is famous doesn't mean it needs yet another performance. Not innovative! I'm sure the classical thunder recording, and the 30 second clip used as part of the soundtrack of about a dozen movies ever year should just about do us for that piece. And paired with Psycho? But why? Not that you need a reason, but your innovation must have some explanation. Dazzle me with your innovative invocations of innovavavavations. [Note: Bull-shit connections like "light" and "dark" are very tired and will not be accepted due to their decidedly piss-poor levels of innovativeness.]

Lisa Hirsch said...

Back in May I had a few things to say about NCCO's ghastly programming this season.

Empiricus said...

Yeah. Their programming is surely on the pops-ish side. Good call. But, I don't have to go (I hope you don't/didn't, either), which explains why I chose not go after them. It seems they're just going about their business, as usual, as many small budget orchestras do. I just don't understand how someone can call the NCCO innovative, while simultaneously acknowledging that many ensembles do the same. But, is the least offensive, middle-of-the-road kind of programming really innovative, especially when every orchestra and their moms are doing it? Somewhere in Scott's head there was one tiny, non-essential screw loose, that didn't link "dry rot" and "cliche" with pops concerts.

Empiricus said...

Oops! I should clarify something. When I referred to my high school's music program, I was, in fact, referring to a California public high school music program.

So there, just in case you were thinking I went to a super-genius private high school that cost more than my left arm on the black market.

Lisa Hirsch said...

E - right, I don't have to go, and I won't. Last time I saw them, great program; this year - yeesh. Overexposed classical pop (Eine Kleine, Brandenburgs), movie music, some Piazzolla, and some new music by Clarice Assad.