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Unanswered Question | Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

March 2, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

In 1966 the New York Philharmonic undertook an 18-day Stravinsky festival as a kind of try-out for Lukas Foss, whom Leonard Bernstein favored to take over as music director. The conductors included Foss, Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet (who had conducted for Diaghilev), Kiril Kondrashin (a major Soviet artist), and Stravinsky himself. George Balanchine choreographed Ragtime for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. The Soldier’s Tale was given with John Cage as the Devil, Elliott Carter as the Soldier, and Aaron Copland narrating. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang five Stravinsky songs, Pulcinella, an excerpt from The Rake’sProgress. Larry Rivers created a visual presentation for Oedipus Rex. Remarkably, the Stravinsky festival fizzled and Foss was passed over in favor of a French composer/conductor – Pierre Boulez – as much a stranger to Bernstein’s American agenda as to Indian ragas or Brazilian sambas.

In 1972, across the Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City Ballet undertook a Stravinsky festival of its own. Balanchine’s company gave seven Stravinsky programs in eight days. Of 31 ballets presented, 21 were premieres. The eight Balanchine premieres included Violin Concerto, instantly recognized as iconic, and – on the same opening night — Symphony in Three Movements, which would take some years to register.

Comparisons to the Philharmonic’s Stravinsky festival six years previous were and are inescapable. The Philharmonic festival was bigger, with more big names and a fuller perspective on the Stravinsky odyssey — but was quickly forgotten. Obviously, the City Ballet festival enjoyed a creative component: the new ballets. Equally obvious was the difference in reception. For the Philharmonic subscribers, Stravinsky remained a chore. For patrons of City Ballet, Stravinsky was a privilege.

I tell this story in the course of a 10,000-word essay on arts leadership, written last year when I was a Resident Fellow at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. It’s currently posted on Doug McLennan’s invaluable artsjournal.com site, with five substantial responses – an “AJ Debate” itself linked to a recent “arts leadership” conclave at the University of Texas/El Paso.

A villain in my tale is Arthur Judson, for decades the major powerbroker for classical music in the US. Abdicating arts leadership (he even disfavored engaging a music director), Judson had for 34 years haphazardly fostered a faceless Philharmonic constituency. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had since 1948 purposefully honed a validating cultural community. George Balanchine and City Ballet changed the face of dance. Leonard Bernstein led audiences to Mahler: he expanded the canon. But Bernstein could not change the face of the New York Philharmonic.

The starting point of my essay is an iconic 1966 photograph I remember from my teenage years. Balanchine, Bernstein, and Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, are posed in front of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. The Met is about to inaugurate its new home, completing the move to Lincoln Center of the three main institutional constituents. Bing stands alongside a poster brandishing the sold-out world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, inaugurating the New Met. Bernstein (with cigarette) stands alongside a poster showing the sold-out run of a subscription program comprising an obscure Beethoven overture, William Schuman’s String Symphony, and Mahler’s First (not yet a repertoire staple). A City Ballet poster, to the rear, announces the dates of the Fall season. So depicted, three performing arts leaders – all of them famously strong personalities — are seen poised to drive their celebrated companies to greater heights, buoying an unprecedented American cultural complex

Ten thousand words later, my essay ends:

“Lincoln Center was conceived by public-spirited corporate businessmen, led by John D. Rockefeller III. It never became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, humming with creativity, after the fashion of Harvey Lichtenstein’s BAM or Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. It has lately acquired a $1.5 billion facelift, including a dramatically thrusting façade for Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School; Tully itself, however, remains deficient in the intimacy and warmth appropriate to a chamber-music venue.

“Imagine, if you can, a photograph of Peter Gelb, Alan Gilbert, and Peter Martins posed in front of the new, glass-enclosed Tully complex. All three institutions are poised to collaborate on a multi-week festival addressing pressing contemporary social and political issues, with the full participation of the New York City public schools and the City University of New York (whose Hunter College Auditorium will reportedly host the Philharmonic during Geffen Hall renovations).”

I cited this pipedream because I knew it would be realized this February in the city of El Paso, where a “Copland and Mexico” festival, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, would celebrate cultural collaboration between two nations embroiled in an uncertain future relationship. Mexico’s amazing artistic efflorescence of the 1930s – today mostly unremembered by young Mexican-Americans – would be the central topic.

A centerpiece of the programing would be the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution: Redes (1935), which thrillingly combines the talents of a master (and under-recognized) Mexican composer —  Silvestre Revueltas — and a legendary American photographer – Paul Strand. The participating institutions would include the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, the El Paso public schools, and the University of Texas/El Paso (UTEP), with classes and faculty members in half a dozen departments taking part. The festival would penetrate outlying “colonias” without paved roads or running water, and also the neighboring Mexican city of Juarez. The many scheduled events would include “Copland and the Cold War” – an evening of music and theater exploring the impact of the Red Scare on America’s most prominent composer of concert music. It all duly transpired a week ago.

What I could not anticipate was the pertinence of the El Paso festival to arts leadership in the age of Donald Trump – the inevitable focus of the artsjournal conclave in El Paso on Feb. 17. The participants, in addition to Doug and myself, were two bona fide arts leaders: Frank Candelaria, UTEP’s missionary Associate Provost, and Delta David Gier, music director of the unique South Dakota Symphony – whose Lakota Music Project I have extolled in this space. You can watch the conclave here. The talks are 20 minutes each. They tell stories — about how the arts can impact on the way we live, and on individual lives — that need to be heard, and never more than now.

Unanswered Question | Are Orchestras Better than Ever?

Are Orchestras Better than Ever? Why Riccardo Muti is Wrong

February 26, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

Are orchestras better than ever?  Riccardo Muti thinks so. Recently, dedicating a bust of Fritz Reiner at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he said: “The level of the orchestras in the world – especially in the seventies and eighties — has gone up everywhere.”

What is Muti talking about? I suppose he’s applying the criterion of perfection. Perfect intonation, perfect ensemble. What kind of criterion is that?

Thanks to the exceptional WWFM The Classical Network, I’ve been able to respond to this parochial claim at three hours length, in colloquy with Bill McGlaughlin. You can hear the resulting rant here and here. Bill and I auditioned fabulous concert and studio recordings by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony, Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, Artur Bodanzky and the  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Three things bear mentioning about these historic pairings. The first is that – to a degree unknown today – the conductors stayed put. There were no airplanes. The music director was the music director.

The second thing that leaps to mind – and to the attentive ear – is that each of these conductors honed a distinctive sonic imprint. No one could possibly mistake a Stokowski orchestra for a Mitropoulos orchestra.

Thirdly, each of these conductors pursued a distinctive mission allied with repertoire. Except in the cases of Bodanzky and Toscanini, the espoused repertoire was fresh.

Take Koussevitzky in Boston (a 25-year tenure). He gave the American premiere of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He gave the world premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. What is more, he commissioned both these famous compositions. His Boston broadcasts capture the most galvanizing readings of both pieces I have ever heard. Bill and I listened to them together. You can hear Koussevitzky’s indescribably hot Mussorgsky/Ravel at 51:40 here – after which I exclaimed “Give me a break! You can’t possibly tell me orchestras are better than ever!”

Then there is Mitropoulos in Minneapolis – an extremist, the Dr. Caligari of the podium. This was an orchestra whose concertmaster, Louis Krasner, had premiered the Berg and Schoenberg concertos. Its stylistic base was Mahler and the Second Viennese School. In 1940 Mitropoulos made the first and best recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. Check it out at 10:16 here. If Mitropoulos (as I argue, citing evidence) conducts Mahler a la Mahler, his Schumann Second Symphony a la Mahler is an acquired taste. Bill (at 32:38) was bewildered: “It makes me really jittery. I can’t understand this Schumann. I know that Schumann was meshugana. It’s almost like an Expressionist Schuman . . . this is so crazy-making for me. Help me out!”

The larger premise of this three-hour harangue is that nothing like the bristling sense of occasion once registered by Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos – or by Bodanzky’s powderkeg of a pit orchestra, so much more distinctive than the generic Met Opera orchestra of today – can any longer be assured. The concert experience needs to be refreshed and rethought. That’s the premise of PostClassical Ensemble, the DC-based chamber orchestra I co-founded with Angel Gil-Ordonez 14 years ago.

In April, WWFM inaugurates “PostClassical,” a series of two-hour thematic specials culling live and recorded PCE performances. We begin by celebrating the Lou Harrison Centenary on April 28. In June, we argue that Bernard Herrmann was the most underrated American composer of the 20th century. Others shows in the series will include “Schubert Uncorked” (with bass trombonist David Taylor), “Stravinsky and Shostakovich Reconsidered (with pianist Alexander Toradze), “Dvorak and Hiawatha,” and “Silvestre Revueltas: Better than Copland.”

Stay tuned.

Unanswered Question | Music and the National Mood

Music and the National Mood

February 6, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm.

We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone else was responsible for transforming spirituals into art songs.

Burleigh – once Dvorak’s assistant at New York’s National Conservatory (1892-1895) — is a forgotten hero of American music. His seminal “Deep River” arrangement of 1915 electrified American audiences; it was instantly appropriated by preeminent white recitalists. It was later sung by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. It is still sung today.

Burleigh’s own recital repertoire also included songs by Beethoven, Faure, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a Burleigh specialty. Doubtless for Burleigh all this music spoke a common language of uplift.

Our soloist at the Washington Cathedral was the African-American bass-baritone Kevin Deas. I would say that he is today’s supreme exponent of spirituals in concert. He made his early career singing Bach and Handel. He came relatively late to Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements. For him the distance from Messiah to “Go Down, Moses” is inconsequential.

It has been my privilege to accompany Kevin Deas in concert for the past decade – but never before in such a vast and inspirational space. Burleigh himself advised that “success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling.” Kevin possesses a divinely mellifluous instrument (an audience member at one of our concerts confided, weeping, that she felt she had heard “the voice of God”). But his performances  begin not with notes; they begin with with feeling. I know from experience with other singers that an iota of ego is fatal in this repertoire. At the National Cathedral, the gravitas of the space informed all we did. My sense, on stage, was that the evening’s eighth number, Burleigh’s voice-and-piano arrangement of “Steal Away,” hypnotized the big room for good (the nave held nearly 1,000 listeners). It sounded like this:

After that, seamlessly (we proceeded without applause), came Nathaniel Dett’s galvanizing “Listen to the Lambs” with the Cathedral Choir, then Kevin Deas singing “For the Mountain Shall Depart” from Elijah, with PostClassical Ensemble led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The evening built to Burleigh’s classic “Deep River” for mixed a cappella chorus, followed by two Messiah selections: “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the Hallelujah Chorus.

But if there was a signature number, it may have been William Dawson’s arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead” – a piece Leontyne Price used to sing. Many with whom I spoke afterward had found the evening a necessary balm.

During the Cold War, the Kennedy White House famously hosted culture. JFK would talk about how the arts can only thrive in a harmonious “free society.” That was either naïve nonsense or cynical propaganda. The arts thrive in exigent times. In the twentieth century, the thirties and the sixties – the Depression, the Vietnam years — were decades remarkable for American artistic expression, decades in which music memorably voiced protest and compassion.

We may well be embarking on another such trying period in our nation’s history. In what ways will our musical institutions rise to the occasion? We shall see.

Mind of A Musician: Chris Gekker

PostClassical Ensemble’s principal trumpeter Chris Gekker sits down with Dimension Media’s Behrouz Jamali in conversation about his career on the stage and in the studio.

Chris next appears with PostClassical Ensemble in The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4, 2017 at Washington National Cathedral.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Kevin Deas on WETA | Classical Conversation

PostClassical Ensemble’s Resident Artists and Soloist in the upcoming program The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4 at the National Cathedral, Kevin Deas joined WETA’s Marilyn Cooley for a Classical Conversation.

Kevin Deas on WETA's Classical Conversations with Marilyn Cooley

The PostClassical Ensemble and Washington National Cathedral join forces on Saturday February 4 at the Cathedral for a concert titled The Trumpet Shall Sound — A Program of Spirituals and Religious Arias.  Bass-baritone Kevin Deas is a featured artist, and he joined Marilyn Cooley at Classical WETA‘s studios to talk about the upcoming program.

Click to Listen

Unanswered Question | Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

by Joseph Horowitz

 

No other music so instantly evokes a sense of place as that of Dmitri Shostakovich. When Daniil Trifonov launched Shostakovich’s E minor Prelude at Carnegie Hall last week, the bleakness and exigency of Stalin’s Russia at once chilled the huge space. The Shostakovich affect can seem exotic or native, according to circumstance. I would say it today complements that part of the national mood concentrated in the Northeastern United States and 3,000 miles away on the West Coast.

Trifonov offered a substantial Shostakovich set: five of the 24 Preludes and Fugues composed in homage to Bach in 1950-51. This experience proved doubly revelatory. Comprising the Preludes and Fugues in E minor, A major, A minor, D major, and D minor, the sequence registered as a compositional achievement unsurpassed by other post-World War II composers for solo piano. And Trifonov’s readings were boldly individual. Shostakovich – a considerable pianist – favored a plain style. Trifonov’s style, with its emphasis on color and refined tonal liquidity, is remote from the composer’s.

The D major Fugue, in particular, was barely recognizable. Shostakovich composed a sharp, acerbic Allegretto. Trifonov here produced a Prestissimo blur, an arresting, elusive impressionistic cameo.

The D minor Prelude and Fugue is the titanic capstone to Shostakovich’s 24. Shostakovich’s recording is dry and imperious. Trifonov’s reading is Lisztian: Romantically plastic, generously pedaled. It was the charged high point of the evening.

The remainder of the program was standard: a Schumann first half; Stravinky’s Petrushka to close. I know Carnegie has to sell tickets – but this young pianist may have acquired a following ready for anything. It has been years since I encountered a New York  audience – the hall was packed – as absorbed in a purely musical experience. There is nothing exceptional about Trifonov’s hair or attire. He is neither glamorous nor notorious. At the age of 25 he is already embodies a species become rare: a major concert pianist. He also composes.

What comes next for this young man? Aside from my son, I noticed no listeners approximately the pianist’s own age. A decade hence, will Daniil Trifonov fill Carnegie Hall? And what will be be playing? The marginalization of classical music accelerates apace.

PS: PostClassical Ensemble’s Shostakovich-Weinberg festival this March includes another boldly individual pianist: Alexander Toradze, in  Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. Edward Gero of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre will play Shostakovich. We will have occasion to compare Shostakovich’s official pronouncements of the 1930s and ‘40s with what he later had to say about his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. To see Ed Gero as the younger Shostakovich, and find further information on the concerts, click here.

Bernard Herrmann Festival on WETA

 

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PCE is taking over 90.9 WETA this Halloween

To celebrate Halloween, WETA’s Front Row Washington presents:

The Music of Bernard Herrmann

Monday, October 31 at 9:00pm 
Tune in Monday evening to hear PCE’s performance at the National Gallery of Art, April 17, 2016. Conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and recorded by John Conway.

This concert was part of our Bernard Herrmann Festival during the 2015-16 season:

From WETA radio:

Post Classical Ensemble–Halloween Special. The music of Bernard Herrmann

Presented by the National Gallery of Art
Monday, October 31, 2016 – 9:00pm

Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor, presents a Halloween Special featuring the music of Bernard Herrmann.  We’ll hear different aspects of Herrmann’s music, including John Mauceri’s arrangement of the iconic 1960 soundtrack to Psycho, plus the 1967 Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and the 1935 Sinfonietta for Strings.

This concert was recorded at the National Gallery of Art, April 17, 2016 by John Conway.

Featured performances:

Antonio Muñoz Molina on PCE’s Redes

“Revueltas is one of those composers who for various accidental reasons — his disorderly life and premature death, the fact of his being Mexican – does not occupy the place that he should in a present-day musical culture that clings so tenaciously to the sclerotic. . . . His music, so powerful in itself, highlights the rich artistic crossroads of the thirties, the tensions between modernity and mass culture, between formal innovation and political activism.

 

PostClassical Ensemble enters into this realm with an effort not only to recover works now merely names, but to put that music and those names in the context of their own time, to illuminate connections with politics, with social and historical facts, with everything that surrounds and feeds the music. With his bow ties and jumping locks of hair, Angel Gil-Ordonez possesses a double worldliness as an orchestral conductor and a professor at a prestigious American university. On New York City’s Upper West Side, Joseph Horowitz is a classical-music anchorite of scholarship and demanding passion, but his knowledge extends with equal rigor to literature and cinema, to the history of culture through the great crises of the twentieth century. His book Artists in Exile, on the great European diaspora caused by Nazism and Communism, combines the aspirations of an historical chronicle and a tidal novel. . . .

 

Their latest great effort of rediscovery is the premiere recording of the complete score composed by Silvestre Revueltas for a legendary 1935 Mexican film, Redes, in collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand and exiled Austrian filmmaker Fred Zinnemann. It is hard to imagine a more complete conjunction of talent. . . .

 

In 1935 the best films still preserved the purity and expressive visual sophistication of silent cinema. In Redes, imagery and music combine so powerfully that the few spoken words are rather irrelevant. Revueltas’s love of Stravinsky and of the folk music of Mexico inspire a fiercely corporeal rhythmic sensibility applied to the collective choreography of fishermen. Almost twenty years later, in Hollywood, Fred Zinnemann would direct High Noon, in which we find a bedazzled white clarity of inflexible sunlight identical Redes. Now, with a restored print of Redes and Revueltas’ soundtrack newly recorded by PostClassical Ensemble, the beauty of image and of sound register as never before. As Joseph Horowitz says, it is like experiencing a masterpiece of painting cleaned of centuries of grime. The exhausted and disillusioned Silvestre Revueltas of his final years would never have imagined such posterity.”

 

— Antonio Munoz Molina, in El Pais (Madrid), May 28, 2016

Unanswered Question: Musical Films

Musical Films

STORM WARNINGS: The Future of Orchestras

STORM WARNINGS: THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS

League of American Orchestras logo

I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras.

The Getty Foundation
WETA
The Washington Ballet
Washington National Cathedral
WWFM The Classical Network
Edlavitch DCJCC
American University
Artmentor Foundation
Marpat
AHMSA
Artworks
Cafritz
DCCAH
Dallas
Graham Holdings
Washington Performing Arts
Georgetown DPA
Georgetown
Indonesian Embassy
national gallery