So says the critic Joe Queenan in the Guardian (via Arts & Letters Daily ). After 40 years and 1500 concerts, Queenan doesn’t think much of the taste of the average concert-goer, but he also doesn’t like much of contemporary composition either. When beauty, order, and meaning have been deconstructed in so much of our thinking, it’s no wonder that they should disappear in much of our music too:
During a radio interview between acts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a famous singer recently said she could not understand why audiences were so reluctant to listen to new music, given that they were more than ready to attend sporting events whose outcome was uncertain. It was a daft analogy. Having spent most of the last century writing music few people were expected to understand, much less enjoy, the high priests of music were now portrayed as innocent victims of the public’s lack of imagination. If they don’t know in advance whether Nadal or Federer is going to win, but still love Wimbledon, why don’t they enjoy it when an enraged percussionist plays a series of brutal, fragmented chords on his electric marimba? What’s wrong with them?
The reason the sports analogy fails is because when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 - but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game . . . .
Earlier this year, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the National Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin is a canny, industrious conductor and a champion of American music. His philosophy seems to be that if Americans do not support living composers, American composers will cease to exist - though if the best America can do is John Corigliano and Philip Glass and the dozens of academics who give each other awards for music nobody likes, this might not be such a bad thing. Slatkin’s programme consisted of three gimmicky pieces: Liszt’s flamboyant Second Piano Concert, Ravel’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; and an ambitious new work by a young American named Mason Bates. This last piece, entitled Liquid Interface, examined “the phenomenon of water in its variety of forms”, something Ravel and Mussorgsky never got around to. It featured wind machines and bongos and an electric drum pad and a laptop and a gigantic orchestra. It was bloated but thoroughly harmless, and the audience responded warmly; nothing thrills a classical music crowd more than a new piece of music that doesn’t make them physically ill. But the concert underscored the problem in including new work on the same programme as the old chestnuts: it is not just asking striplings to compete with titans; it is asking obscure, academically trained liquid interfacers to compete with titans at the top of their game. As the saying goes: you don’t send a boy to do Franz Liszt’s job.
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