In Defense of Modernism (vis-a-vis Romanticism), or: The Conductor's Gambit

I thought this NYT review was interesting. Writing of the NY Phil's last 2009 subscription concert, Allan Kozinn's reading is that conductor Alan Gilbert

"built this program with what appeared to have been the modest but telling goal of getting the Philharmonic audience to warm to Webern’s concise, focused 12-tone music"

and his argument is pretty convincing based on the evidence. Also, it is a thoughtful and well-written article. (Sorry.)

Moreover: what's the deal with that, anyway? Yeah, it's Webern. It's modernist. It's also eighty fucking years ago.

Besides, it's austere, refined, and brief. It's not violent, really, or confrontational or sexual, if you consider that Dada and Surrealism are going on about the same time.

Figure 1: Confrontational, depersonalizing, topical. Interesting, but not very Webernian.

Neither is it a cacophonous mess.

Figure 2: Rauchenberg, whose beautiful cacaphonous messes can be outstanding.

If anything, it's almost minimal, and takes delight in geometry, symmetry, and subtle color shading.

Figure 3: Albers. Nice.

Lastly, it's essentially expressionistic. If the [Germanic] Romantic ideal of absolute music transcends words and programs as superfluous and in-the-world (and therefore less-than-transcendent), and therefore not necessary to the personal expression of the composer, this brand of early Modernism suggests that tonality, too, is unnecessaryperhaps even a hindranceto that end. That is, that a composer is capable of expressing in sound what cannot otherwise be expressed.

Embeddence 1: Webern, Symphony Op. 21. All seven excruciating minutes.

Romanticism. Right? At least that's the purported take of Gilbert for this concert.

So, audience...and not any audience, New York Philharmonic Subscription Concert Audience, for crap's sake: Why do you hate Webern so much?

The stage of Avery Fisher Hall was decked out with flowing blue curtains and floral arrangements on Tuesday evening in preparation for the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert. But Alan Gilbert’s more pressing business was the orchestra’s final subscription program for 2009, an inventive juxtaposition of works by Webern, Mozart and Schumann.

I like this. Is it superfluous to burn some column inches describing the hall? In this case, no. Here's why:

The stage of Avery Fisher Hall was decked out with flowing blue curtains and floral arrangements on Tuesday evening in preparation for the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert.

Yay, festive! Curtains! Flowers! Let's listen to some holiday cheer. Or, better: some goddamn Webern.

Figure 4: ...and a Happy New Year!

Mr. Gilbert built this program with what appeared to have been the modest but telling goal of getting the Philharmonic audience to warm to Webern’s concise, focused 12-tone music, by way of the Symphony (Op. 21), which he conducted (and spoke about) in the second half.

Fascinating, and hilarious. And, potentially, a good time. What, I wonder, was his strategy?

And he surrounded the symphony with very different works, all meant to undercut what some listeners still regard as its abstruse harshness.

How is, say, Mahler not unbelievably abstruse? Canons seem pretty simple to comprehend compared to the fourteenth freaking modulaton to yet another far-off key in the middle of a two-hour symphony. But sadly, no.

Figure 5: "Oh, I get it! Because I know that chord!"

(One could argue that it is exactly this sort of abstruseness that Webern was trying to avoid.)

His first move in this endeavor was to offer a reminder of Webern’s unabashedly Romantic roots by conducting “Im Sommerwind,” a student work from 1904, the year Webern became a disciple of Schoenberg (who was also writing in a tonal, essentially Romantic style at the time).

Ah, the old appeal-to-the-composer's-early-work gambit. Why is it a gambit? What's being sacrificed, and for what potential gain?

Figure 6: Queen's Gambit. Classic.

The upside is that the audience might get (like and/or understand?) it. But in drawing so many lines to Webern's Romanticism, are we sacrificing some of its Modernism?

In this case, I don't think so. Webern's Modernist (indeed, his abstract-abstruse-thorny-difficult-intellectualized-elitist Modernist) credentials are well-established.

You can hear the composer’s influences clearly: its lush string shimmer, its dynamic ebb and flow and its sense of the dramatic and picturesque have roots in the Strauss tone poems, and hints of Mahler (in bright-hued woodwind episodes) and Wagner (in grandly modulating chord progressions) waft through the piece.

Embeddence 2: Im Somerwind (part 2).

Conductors often perform “Im Sommerwind” as a way of saying, “See, Webern isn’t so bad,” and most of the time they leave it at that; listeners interested in hearing more are on their own.

But no!

Mr. Gilbert used the Philharmonic’s sweeping, colorful account to show that the Webern who wrote this spare, pointillistic Symphony from 1928 was schooled in the Romantic mainstream, and built on it.

Good, good.

He tried to say so directly in his spoken comments but was momentarily derailed: when he suggested that Webern’s themes are sometimes almost melodic, the audience tittered, leaving Mr. Gilbert to say he was serious.

Ha ha ha! It's great that the audience doesn't like it because they like that they don't understand it. America, fuck yeah!

Figure 7: Wary of other cultures and the unfamiliar in general, latte-sipping New York Elitist Liberal Concert-Goers relax with traditional lawn-games secure in the knowledge that some over-educated conductor asswipe's not going to tell them what a melody is.

He brought reinforcements to make his case in this 7-minute introduction to the 10-minute score.

First, ten minutes is a really slow Op. 21. Second, he brought up more people to tell the audience, "No, really! It's good!"?

Figure 8: Try Webern, or new Cinnamon Webern! Mikey likes it!

John Mangum, the orchestra’s artistic administrator, spoke briefly about his fascination with Webern’s way of distributing thematic fragments through the orchestra, and Eric Bartlett[,] a habituĂ© of new music ensembles before he joined the Philharmonic’s cello section, advised simply listening to the flow of sound and not worrying about the rules of 12-tone composition or other technical or philosophical underpinnings.

The Webern Symphony had celebrity endorsements? Does it come with a free ShamWow?

Figure 9: A bill of goods, for sale.

The performance was almost anticlimactic, given the work’s brevity and textural transparency.

Yeah. It's not, in the end, Romantic music. Brevity and transparency are among its Modernist virtues.

Mr. Gilbert led a gracefully paced performance that made much of the feathery textures in the opening movement and the sprightly variations that make up the finale. And the Philharmonic’s playing, polished and warm,...

...was really good Modernism, right?

...offered occasional glimpses — in the rich vibrato on a violin line, the vigorous rendering of a woodwind figure — of the Romantic who wrote “Im Sommerwind.”

Oh. Well, shit. Maybe it was a gambit after all. Still, if it gets 'em listening, so much the better.

As a way of showing that the episodic qualities of the Webern Symphony have historical roots,...

Ah, interesting!

...Mr. Gilbert followed it (and closed the concert) with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 (Op. 61), in a taut, beautifully burnished performance that capitalized on the orchestra’s virtuosity without overstating it.

What an odd choice, although it effectively speaks to (in its own way, as explicated by Kozinn) the Modernism-Romanticism link.

And between the two Webern scores the pianist Leif-Ove Andsnes joined the orchestra for an elegant, dynamically fluid reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A (K. 488).

It's quite odd that a pianist of this stature playing possibly the quintessential Piano Concerto gets only a single sentence at the end of the review. It shows, I think, the impression that the overall structure of the concert program had on the reviewer, which is fascinating in its own right.

And so is the concert itself. Clearly there are as many similarities as differences between Modernism and Romanticism, and if highlighting these issues for the audience results in the appreciation (and, really, even performances) of some unjustly-derided music, I'm all for it.

Sometimes grim insistence that difficult art should be accepted immediately on its own terms is a tough pill to swallow.

Figure 10 (Kandinsky, Composition No. 7): Like this, goddamit! LIKE IT RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!


Empiricus said...

It always strikes me as odd when we, as an audience, ignore (?) modernism in art as if it, in its inherent ugliness, sprang up from the ether to be discarded. And as a reaction, we, as proselytizers, apologize.

Gustav said...

A perfect summary of the struggles all modern music faces in the concert hall. Like Empiricus points out, something has made ignoring modernism (and most avant-garde styles) okay. The conductor of the NY Phil is only an authority worth listening to when he tells us stuff we already agree with, but when he presents information that challenges cultural stereotypes, we titter because, of course, we already know everything.

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