Rutter appointment sparks thoughts on classical music at the Kennedy Center
On Tuesday, the Kennedy Center announced the appointment of Deborah Rutter, the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, as its next president; she will succeed Michael Kaiser in the fall of 2014. Throughout the classical music field, the news was received with a mixture of surprise and delight; Rutter is admired, respected, unflashy, and has a superb track record without a history of blowing her own horn. Having spent much of Tuesday talking to Rutter’s friends and colleagues for my story in the Washington Post, I sat back the next day and thought about what this appointment might mean for the Kennedy Center in the long run.
Is the Kennedy Center sending a signal with the selection of Deborah Rutter as its next president?
It’s not that she’s a woman, though it was certainly high time for the Kennedy Center to be led by one. It’s that she comes from the classical music world.
The statement that classical music is in trouble rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And yes, we have more recordings, composers, and ensembles than ever; more talented musicians than ever; and more concerts than ever. The field, however, is facing some challenges, particularly the large-scale institutions -- opera houses and orchestras -- that have long represented the major players, and that account for the bulk of spending, hiring, and ticket-buying. (Remember that a bad audience at the National Symphony Orchestra is still geometrically larger than a good one at the Atlas or Dumbarton Oaks or Vocal Arts DC.) And those large institutions are a cornerstone of the Kennedy Center -- now more than ever, since both the NSO and the Washington National Opera are under the center’s umbrella.
Yet classical music at the Kennedy Center is one area that could use some work. I should perhaps exclude the opera company; WNO’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, is certainly committed to change, outreach, expanding the company’s mandate and offerings, so in a sense the company deserves a grace period until she has had time to implement her vision.
But the National Symphony Orchestra remains a cipher: a big, well-paid orchestra that somehow never seems quite able to live up to its potential. Christoph Eschenbach’s arrival as the Kennedy Center music director brought a high-profile presence and bolstered morale, and for a while it appeared that Eschenbach and the NSO may have been developing the elusive chemistry that neither the orchestra or the conductor had been able to establish with their last few partners. But his vision as music director appears to be plateauing. One of his strengths -- by his own reckoning -- lies in cultivating lasting personal relationships with other artists. Some of these artists have gone on to big careers (Renee Fleming, Lang Lang), and some have not, and Eschenbach’s critics are fond of invoking the quirkier ones as figurative sticks with which to beat him.
This criticism misses the mark, however. The real point is not the quality of Eschenbach’s collaborators; it’s that these collaborators seem to represent the sum total of what he brings to the table. At the Kennedy Center, we haven’t seen new concert series, or experiments, or even large-scale composer cycles beyond a focus on Beethoven. All we’ve seen is Eschenbach collaborating with a number of different artists, including NSO musicians, which is in itself a fine thing, but after a few seasons begins to pale as a stand-in for actually finding new ways to connect with audiences and move the organization into the 21st century.
Above: An excerpt of the piece “Alternative Energy,” by the CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates. “[Co-composer-in-residence] Anna Clyne and I wanted to really reimagine the format” of the CSO’s already successful MusicNOW series, Bates said. “We wanted to bring in video program notes, immersive stagecraft and lighting. Deborah gave us complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. Sometimes to continue the success of something you have to reimagine it.”Continue reading this post »
December concerts in review: of student-like recitals, opera, and concertmasters in the spotlight
A quick look at the musical highlights of the month thus far, as observed by the classical music critics of the Washington Post.
Robert Battey started the month with a brace of concerts. He heard the controlled veteran Anne-Marie McDermott in a program at the Phillips that included Haydn, Prokofiev’s 6th sonata, and a sonata that Charles Wuorinen wrote for the pianist in 2007; and he had a mixed reaction to the striking young pianist Ji, whom Young Concert Artists presented at the Kennedy Center, loving his Corigliano and Ravel but questioning his Schubert and Bach.
Charles T. Downey took in some vocal performances, starting at Vocal Arts DC, which presented the promising young bass-baritone Brandon Cedel in a program Downey found rather pedestrian, and continuing at the Kennedy Center’s Fortas series with Cantus’s “All is Calm,” a “radio-drama-like re-creation” of the Christmas Truce of 1914, an event that seems to exert continual fascination in the music world (it was also the subject of Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night”).
Simon Chin heard the Academy Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala play a program of greatest operatic hits at Strathmore that felt to him a bit like a school recital.Continue reading this post »
Gift list: what does a person who “likes classical music” really like?
Tis the season to think of gifts. A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to put together a list of new CDs for another friend, a woman in her 30s whom I’ve never met who describes herself as “liking classical music,” and listens to it a lot -- and not to pop music -- on the radio.
What an easy task. I have literally hundreds of new CDs sitting on and around my desk (I wish this were an exaggeration), all of them falling under the rubric of “classical music.” It’s a trove of new releases of all descriptions, and it should make any classical-music lover’s mouth water.
But when I started to think about it, it got less easy. Because saying “I like classical music” can be (as I’ve said before) as much a sociological statement as an aesthetic one. The music you like is tied up with your identity, and the 30-year-old who says “I like classical music, and not pop/rock,” is signaling that she doesn’t run with the crowd. But what exactly is she saying? And what music would she actually like?
This person seems to me to be telegraphing the idea that indie rock, for instance, is not her thing. So while I usually think of a lot of genre-busting contemporary classical as inherently interesting to a younger (read: under 50. Ha) listener, I’m not sure this person would like itsnotyouitsme, or Claire Chase, or never-before-released recordings that Philip Glass made with the band The Raybeats in the 1980s. (Note that this post gives me a chance to work in mentions of some of the six gazillion CDs I am and/or want to be listening to.)
Opera, of course, is a genre unto itself. I always stick at least one opera or aria album into gift boxes, but I well realize that plenty of self-defined classical music lovers are not opera lovers, and vice versa. If I were playing it safe, I’d offer art songs, instead: maybe Jake Heggie’s “Here/After,” or, pushing the envelope, “Soldier Songs” by David T. Little. Or would a “classical music lover” prefer the big flavors du jour, such as Jonas Kaufmann or Anna Netrebko?
Then again, not every classical music lover loves big symphonic works. I realized that I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that my unknown music lover wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to Gergiev’s Szymanowski cycle with the LSO, or Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Orchestra continuing their Shostakovich cycle with 4th Symphony; though I thought she might like Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony doing Beethoven’s 2nd. The jury is out, too, on solo piano music: Valentina Lisitsa? Daniil Trifonov? Jeremy Denk?
What I realized, when I really thought about it, was that I assumed that the tastes of someone who mainly listened to music on classical radio stations would run to Bach cello suites, Vivaldi violin concertos, Anonymous 4, and Mozart. There’s nothing wrong with those tastes, but I suspect there’s something wrong with those assumptions -- which are partly based on a sense that classical radio doesn’t generally represent the cutting edge of what’s happening in the field. (One of the main topics about which readers write me is the perceived weakness of classical radio stations.) But that’s unfair to a lot of stations that are doing interesting work.
I am now deeply curious to hear what other people think. So I have two questions for you. One: when a 30-something says her main listening is classical music on the radio, what kinds of music do you think she likes? And two: what three CDs released in the past calendar year would you recommend she listen to?
At the very least, we can come up with a killer crowdsourced gift email@example.com
“War Requiem:” the conversation continues
It’s the month of War Requiem in Washington, where two major organizations feted Benjamin Britten’s centenary with a piece that some have called his magnum opus. I had a couple of chances to talk about the piece in the Washington Post, first in a feature for the Sunday Arts section, and then in my review of the Washington Chorus performance a couple of days later (in which I tried not to repeat the earlier story, forgetting that a number of readers would not have seen the earlier story). So when it came time to review the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance, I was casting about for ways to spare readers hearing me yet again on the same subject, and ways I could avoid repeating myself. My husband, Greg Sandow, is a respected critic, composer and consultant who’s been writing about music in major publications for years, and since he and I have quite different takes on the piece, we had the idea of writing a joint review as a point-counterpoint debate.
To me, this approach is a tangible reminder of how greatly reviews are enhanced by the presence of different points of view. I learn a lot from people who have other opinions, even if they don’t change my mind. And we would both welcome more of them. We would love to hear your thoughts on the War Requiem: the piece itself, the performances in the Washington area, or various recordings and other encounters you’ve had over the years. Post away. We’ll be checking back in through the week and adding to this post with additions and comments of our own.
Above: A complete 1992 performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by John Eliot Gardiner at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. We’d like to hear your thoughts about the piece.
Edited to add: Greg Sandow has added a few thoughts about the Washington Chorus performance, and other comments, in the Comments thread below. Other commenters have weighed in with their own memories and experiences, and in response to one mention of the NSO performance under Rostropovich, I added the Paul Hume review from the Washington Post from 1979.
We’ve also appreciated hearing directly from many of you. One letter, in particular, deserves to be seen in full; it’s one of my favorite readers’ letters ever. I reproduce it below, without further comment.Continue reading this post »
A lost “Lost Childhood.”
In 2005, the opera “Lost Childhood” had a read-through, with singers and piano, through American Opera Projects in New York City. Like many operas these days, it’s based on a true story. It depicts a conversation between a character named Judah, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, inspired by the New York-based psychiatrist Yehuda Nir (who wrote a memoir called “The Lost Childhood”), and a character named Manfred, a German child of Nazi sympathizers, inspired by Richard Wagner’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner. The work was intense, full of conversation -- a “New York Times” review questioned whether opera was the best medium for the subject -- and still had to be orchestrated. In a recent phone interview Charles Jarden, the head of American Opera Projects, said that the composer, Janice Hamer, promised to get back to him when she had completed the orchestration -- and that she didn’t show up until almost seven years later, when she lined up a concert performance of the opera with the National Philharmonic, at Strathmore, this past weekend.
The Strathmore performance, conducted by Piotr Gajewski and starring Michael Hendrick and Christopher Trakas as Judah and Manfred, took place on Saturday night, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass [corrected],” when Nazis systematically attacked Jewish-owned businesses and buildings throughout German and Austria. Gottfried Wagner himself was in attendance.[Correction: A last-minute visa problem prevented Gottfried Wagner from attending.] So were a number of critics, including one from the Washington Post (which covered the event in an advance piece on the blog “On Faith”). When that critic arrived at the hall and opened the program, however, he discovered that he had personal connections to several members of the cast -- which, according to the standards of journalistic objectivity, meant that he couldn’t write about the performance.
Above: A news broadcast about the opera “Lost Childhood,” performed at Strathmore this weekend, includes excerpts of Janice Hamer’s score.Continue reading this post »