Local jazz pianist Paul Ellingson has been after me for ages to discuss his views on what is wrong with the contemporary concert scene. Here is an excerpt from his latest missive:
"Why not do a piece on the issue of the European tradition losing its audience to a worn-out repertoire. Title it `Is Classical Music Dead?' My contention is that American music is still being assimilated while European music is in the final stages of rigor mortis."In support of this he cites Ernest Fleischmann's pronouncement, "We must accept that the orchestra as we know it is dead. It's dead because symphony concerts have become dull and predictable; musicians and audiences are suffering from repetitive routines and formula-type programming; there is an acute shortage of conductors who not only know their scores inside out but also are inspiring leaders; and there is just as great a shortage of administrators who possess artistic vision and imagination."
Heady words from the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic. And, as regular readers of these columns know, I've had my share to say about all of the above without going so far as to pronounce the patient dead.
In critical circles the usual prescription is the kind of visionary leadership that would make the music of today as vital and compelling to mainline audiences as the music of yesterday - i.e., an emphasis on living composers comparable to that of the 18th and 19th centuries, which with few exceptions had little use for music of the past. (Among 20th-century American conductors the Russian-born Serge Koussevitzky is perhaps the paragon here.)
Ellingson doesn't go that far. Indeed the composers whose music he suggests is needed to relieve the tedium of contemporary concert life are every bit as dead as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, namely Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael. They just haven't been in the ground as long. (In fairness the list also includes Henry Mancini and Irving Berlin.)
I won't quarrel with the idea that most American concert music, even much of Gershwin's, is European-derived. Or with the contention that this country's primary contributions to music lie in jazz and the American musical theater. There we lead the world.
But the notion that this is what should replace the "worn-out" symphonic repertoire doesn't hold up, and for the most practical of reasons. I am second to none in my admiration for Kern, Porter and Ellington. But except for the last they simply didn't write much concert music, and even in his case that is not what he is generally remembered for. Ditto Henry Mancini.
In connection with this I remember what Maurice Abravanel said when I asked him why, despite his contemporary zeal, he had never performed Messiaen's "From the Canyons to the Stars," in which the canyons in question are those of southern Utah. Given Messiaen's unconventional scoring, he pointed out, he would have to lay off half the orchestra that night - i.e., it wasn't economical.
The same goes for bringing jazz and Broadway into the concert hall. You'll hear them from time to time on pops programs and the like (nearly always rearranged), but for the most part the symphony orchestra has to be nourished by what was created specifically for it, namely orchestral music, whether it was written 100 years or 100 days ago. Otherwise it will die, from both artistic and economic malnutrition. By the same token I strongly believe that the stylings of a Jerome Kern or a Duke Ellington are best appreciated in their original contexts, as sung by a Fred Astaire or played by a small combo as opposed to a sumptuously endowed opera singer or an orchestra deliberately inflated to symphonic proportions.
I also question the assumption that people are deserting the concert hall for more popular fare. The audience for the latter may be bigger than ever these days but so is the audience for the classics - i.e., the proportion may have shrunk but not the total number. Nor do I believe the crowd at a Def Leppard concert is there because it has grown tired of Beethoven and Mozart. If anything, it tends to work the other way around.
So much so that in recent years it has become possible to fill a hall for Bach and Mozart, as Joseph Silverstein has done on occasion. Not, I hasten to add, any Bach or Mozart - they're still more likely to turn out for the Brandenburg Concertos than they are, say, the St. John Passion. But 100 years ago, with few exceptions, even the Brandenburgs would have gone begging.
That change can be attributed primarily to the increased popularization of this music via recordings and, especially in recent years, films. Would anyone in pre-"Amadeus" days have imagined that the Mozart Requiem would become one of his most popular compositions, or that the movie "Elvira Madigan" would establish the K. 467 (No. 21) as the best-known of his 27-plus piano concertos?
Please note: It wasn't music education, criticism or an influx of supposedly more accessible fare that accomplished this - it was simple exposure. People who otherwise might never have heard this music did, and fell in love with it. What's more, to most of them it was new.
So I'm not sure how American orchestras can best solve the exposure problem, much less the mounting deficits that are almost certainly the real sounder of the death knell for most of them. But I am sure their responsiblity via-a-vis "new" music extends beyond the standard symphonic repertoire in both directions - i.e., to the past and to the present. Admittedly an orchestra or any musical organization is only as alive as the music it plays. But experience tells me that can range from Praetorius (try the motets) and the Gabrielis to the minimalism of John Adams. If people tend to prefer one over the other, and Beethoven to all of them, it isn't so much because they know what they like as because they like what they know.
The trick isn't to change that but to expand on it. Remember, as recently as 40 years ago virtually nobody knew Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," but that was also the decade that gave us Copland's "Appalachian Spring." Most people today would not be without either, any more than the masterworks of an Ellington or a Kern. And if that's a dying musical tradition then I'm a monkey's uncle.