AS it is a holiday weekend, I hope I can be indulged with this topic. Before I start, I found it hysterical that Cut and Paste chose to write a column on disinformation without any remorse or irony as first all of it was cut and pasted again, at least from varied sources this time, and he is the runaway leader for peddling disinformation while cutting and pasting on Covid, Trump, climate change and China, among other topics he peddles disinformation on. And not even original disinformation. He must be delusional if he actually thinks he is not the biggest source of proven disinformation in this paper. Just read what he wrote on Trump as Exhibit A, though we would probably have to run through the alphabet if anyone bothered to regularly read his clipping service routine for malevolent right-wing sites, some of which like his prior favorite Epoch Times have been thrown off mainstream sites for peddling disinformation.
I would also like to thank readers and others who have also commented on my columns and appearances on TV for their kind sentiments. A common theme is their appreciation for my factual points and avoidance of purely personality-driven comments. I told many if I knew what some of the topics were before, I read up prior to appearing out of respect for the audience and hosts. I believe I am given a privilege to have a forum to share my views and that demands I try to be worthy of that honor. So, the least I can do is prepare. Not just mouth what comes first or resort to name-calling. The former is often on display by many who should simply say they don’t know or are not sure. Just watch business news and look for stock responses that can fit multiple scenarios when they don’t know the answer.
From Haydn to Shostakovich
As a fervent but totally amateur classical music aficionado, here are some observations. Among leading Western symphony orchestras and opera houses, there is a clear move to not be a museum programming only dead masters interpreted by mostly white male performers as used to be prevalent. There is criticism that most programming of symphonies starts with Haydn and ends with the most recent addition to core repertoire that reached critical mass around the 1990s, Shostakovich. When I started listening to classical music in my teens, Shostakovich, who died in 1974, was a novelty, except for the occasional performance of Symphonies No. 5 and 10. Performances of any of the other symphonies (there are 15) were novelties outside of the Soviet Union. I used to leap at opportunities to hear No. 5 or 10 when programmed when I lived in the US from 1985 to 1989. We drove seven hours from New Jersey to Tanglewood to watch what I treasure as the greatest concert I saw live, Bernstein conducting Shostakovich’s 5th in 1989. Wow, and it was the last time he conducted it as he sadly passed away in 1990 and was scheduled to record it again. Our loss. Shostakovich really got mainstream in the 1990s and has since been programmed as season openers and highlights. Something I never expected and am very happy about. Besides 5 and 10, I have been able to watch 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 15 live, and perhaps this May, 13. I really want to watch 6 and hope to get the chance soon. There used to be only complete sets of his symphonies from Russian conductors and orchestras. Since Bernard Haitink’s set with the Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic in the 1980s there are now over a dozen complete cycles. I have collected many recordings since.
In the last 10 to 15 years, but especially in the last decade, there has been a conscious awareness to and success in broadening repertoire to include much contemporary work. This also came with the end of the supremacy of the 12-tone school of atonal music which frankly was appreciated only by a very small circle and drove away mainstream listeners and most performers. It was toxic to audiences. In the end the successors to the polytonal and polyrhythmic school of Stravinsky won over Schoenberg. Then with the advent of adventurous music directors in Europe and the acclaimed tenure of Esa Pekka Salonen (the most successful of the conductors to come out of Finland) with the LA Philharmonic, it became increasingly accepted to regularly commission and program new works. About 10 years ago, most major American orchestras started having annual Lunar New Year Concerts. I enjoyed watching the New York Philharmonic’s concert earlier this year. Asian composers also started getting commissions from major orchestras in the West like Unsuk Chin.
Women and minorities
In addition, instead of just Western composers, there was a new emphasis on women composers and minority, Asian and Latin American ones as well. This was also helped by the rise of numerous Asian and Latin American conductors to lead positions in many of the most prestigious orchestras in the West. Asian pioneers starting in the 1960s were Zubin Mehta (Los Angeles Philharmonic then New York Philharmonic) and Seiji Ozawa (San Francisco Symphony then Boston Symphony) who had to endure a lot of carping on their “understanding” of core repertoire, which often was thinly disguised prejudice. There is also a clear push to program female and minority conductors as well. Even a decade ago it was rare to have female conductors leading major orchestras. Still a way to go but much better now. There has long been more tolerance for soloists beyond white males but there has been much improvement since then for both gender and ethnic background.
Same with orchestral personnel. Majority of the New York Philharmonic is female, and the violin section is majority Asian too. Blind auditions where the applicants audition behind a screen, so are heard and not seen, has been a big help.
The rise of global wealth has helped as well. When they moved to Lincoln Center in the 1960s, the New York Philharmonic’s home was called Philharmonic Hall. Alas, the acoustics were poor. A major renovation of the hall in the 1970s was lead-funded by a donor, Avery Fisher, and the hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall. While it improved it was still not ideal. The most recent full-scale renovation which opened last fall was a success and on the back of his $100 million donation it was renamed David Geffen Hall. More money was needed; a like-sized donation was made by Wu Tsai and her husband Joe Tsai, one of the founders and former vice chairman of Alibaba, so the main hall is called Wu Tsai Theater. This also led to a more inclusive outlook.
Music directors and current practices
What are some of the practices the leading orchestras follow today? Some works deeply associated with the orchestra are reserved for their music directors and very honored or special guest conductors. For the New York Philharmonic, one of those works is Mahler’s valedictory 9th Symphony. This is for two reasons; Mahler was a former head of the New York Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic became a renowned interpreter of Mahler starting in the 1960s with the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein who made a recording of all Mahler’s nine symphonies with them. In the 20th century they had three of the most acclaimed music directors in Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein. When Gustavo Dudamel was programmed to play Mahler’s 9th when they announced this year’s season, it was considered very significant, and it did culminate in his becoming their next music director. They hope the forthcoming music directorship of Gustavo Dudamel will revive their glory days that the orchestra has not had since Bernstein. In the 1960s the two most prominent orchestras were the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert Von Karajan and the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein. With their passing in 1989 and 1990 respectively, there haven’t been any conducting superstars of their fame and stature.
For the Philadelphia Orchestra which has the most beautiful and lush strong sound I have heard live, it is Rachmaninov. The Philadelphia Orchestra was Rachmaninov’s favorite and his two cycles of recordings of his concertos were with the orchestra. The first with Stokowski, then Ormandy. His sole recording as a conductor, of his Symphony No. 3 and “Vocalise” were with the orchestra. His final work, the “Symphonic Dances,” was dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra. When they program Rachmaninov, it is generally limited to their music directors or most esteemed guests. Their present music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin is recording the symphonies and concertos (with Danill Trifonov) to much acclaim.
Most guest conductors and soloists come from a week where they play the usual subscription series of three to four concerts with the same program and artists (Thursday to Sunday, sometimes including the following Tuesday). The special ones are given two straight weeks. Last season, the New York Philharmonic gave two weeks to Dudamel and he conducted all Schumann’s Symphonies and to Santu Mattias-Rouvali, the young and acclaimed Finnish conductor of the Philharmonia in London where he took over from, guess who?, Finnish conductor Esa Pekka Salonen. The program for Rouvali was significant as were two bookends of core repertoire. A Beethoven symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
They were very well received. The smart money was the New York Philharmonic wanted Dudamel, but they couldn’t convince him, they might have gone for Rouvali and still may in the future. Rouvali looks like he is destined for a major American position alongside his London-based Philharmonia post. This year Hungarian pianist, Sir Andras Schiff has two weeks as guest soloist. First week he plays Mozart, Bartok in the second.
The New York Philharmonic is considered the toughest musical gig for their music directors and the orchestra. In most major cities, the symphony orchestra is the leading cultural institution which attracts the most prestigious board members.
In New York you have the Metropolitan Opera, their home Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the various museums as competition in the broader arts. In most cities the orchestra is the sole source of symphonic classical music, apart from the occasional visiting orchestra. In New York, the Philharmonic has to compete with a steady stream of the world’s leading orchestras visiting Carnegie Hall 10 blocks away, bringing their best and honed programs as they view the New York visit as the highlight of their tour. I have watched the Concertgebouw Orchestra (my favorite European orchestra which I prefer to more high-profile Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics) and Mariinsky play the same program on tour at Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C. and Newark, respectively and there was a clear letdown in quality compared to when they played at Carnegie Hall. That hall also has such beautiful acoustics. Warm with the right level of reverberation. They were planning to tear it down in the 1960s when Lincoln Center was being built. Mercifully, thanks to the efforts of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern it was saved. That is why in tribute, the main hall was renamed the Isaac Stern Hall. Some like me wish something major in David Geffen Hall was named after Leonard Bernstein. Other major orchestras in the US have space for their conductors to grow into their job. Not New York where they better be ready from the start.
Enjoy and sorry if you felt this article was very indulgent, which it was.