On contemporary classical music, part deux
As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the New York Times published two articles on the New York contemporary classical scene over the past weekend. Their contrasting viewpoints were probably intentional; if so, good for the Times. I'd like to offer my thoughts on both the viewpoints and the way they were presented. You might think I go too far in ascribing opinions to the critics, who may have just been carrying out their respective assignments and finding different things. But I've read these two critics for years, and have developed my own take on where they're coming from. Feel free, as always, to respond with your own take.
First, Times chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini presented a scorecard on how well (i.e., how often) New York's leading classical organizations are presenting contemporary fare. Basically, the answer is pretty well, with more works on more programs than before. That's fine, if your priority is quantity, and think that more is always better. But is it? Where does quality enter the equation? How about audience appeal? Come to think of it, where's the audience at all? And what say do they have in deciding what music gets played?
Not much of one, it seems, other than to show up and take what's given them. Oh, and of course support the music by purchasing tickets and perhaps more. With this attitude, Tommasini's view represents a continuation of the bad old days of the 20th century, when modern music, understandably if sometimes unfairly, became the bane of many concert goers' existence. Given the distance between the composer and the audience, a distance proudly maintained by many composers (read the late Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares if you Listen?"), it's little wonder the two sides couldn't get along.
For his part, Tommasini has usually taken the composers' side in this conflict. Over his years at the Times and previously the Boston Globe, he has fairly consistently expressed his preference for "modernist" classical music, with its gravitation toward atonality and cerebral complexity, and its strong audience-repelling power. He often expresses this preference in the first person (the opening anecdote of the article in question is one such example), as if it were the music's job to confirm his beliefs, and the audience's job to follow his lead. Of course opinions are central to any arts criticism. I've been know to have a few opinions myself. But which would you prefer: a critic who wants it done his way, or a critic who cares whether its being done your way?
What a relief, then, to read the opening paragraphs of veteran critic Allan Kozinn's article on the emerging scene often called "alt-classical". At last, here's a critic with a knowing perspective about his profession, expressed modestly and self-effacingly. Of course, one can allege bias in Kozinn's palpable enthusiasm for the engaging sounds emerging from this scene, especially if one doesn't care for the music he's reporting on. (Digression: Has anyone ever alleged journalistic bias in the direction he or she also happens to espouse? It would be like a rabid sports fan admitting that the officials screwed the "other" team with their calls -- not gonna happen!) But his reporting is well-informed and clear-eyed, and his conclusions, however speculative, are quite plausible.
Now I'll inject a soupçon of bias myself (hey, it's my blog!) and say that I find Tommasini's article to be about continuing to dig the same old hole, and Kozinn's to be about a way to climb out . Or maybe about not jumping into the hole in the first place, to extend the holey metaphor to Friedman-esque proportions. (Of course, the alt-classical folks are not the first to avoid the trap. Composer John Adams offers an excellent account of how he did this a generation ago in his book Hallelujah Junction, and others have also found their way out over the years. But I think the alt-classicals nonetheless represent a major generational shift in attitude.) Tommasini's way does little to bridge the composer-audience gap; Kozinn's way makes the musicians and audience members virtual collaborators in an experiment to remake classical music. Now there's no denying some of Tommasini's music is great, that some of Kozinn's is junk, and that there's tons of good new classical music to be found in other camps, or that belongs in no particular camp. But I think I know which camp is the most fun right now.
Comments encouraged. Especially if I agree with them (just kidding!).
(Top photo: Pianist András Schiff performed with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer, at Carnegie Hall in October. Bottom photo: Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece at the Issue Project Room in (where else?) Brooklyn.