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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Boring Orchestras

Here's another old piece I found while searching for yesterday's essay. It's undated, but based on the reference to Paul Henry Lang and the fact that it's typewritten, I figure it's from 1986. And I'm guessing it's one of the pieces I submitted to a number of Albany-area newspapers as an example of my skill as a classical music critic, a strategy that got me work at a few of those papers over the years. I can't say I'm much impressed by that putative skill when I read the piece today; it labors to make its points and gets annoyingly look-what-I-know. Since then, I've struggled to correct the first of those problems, but I'll be damned if I'll change the second.


DURING A RECENT LECTURE in Albany, 85-year-old musicologist Paul Henry Lang declared that he was adding his distinguished voice to the clamor against the zealous use of antique instruments in performances of antique music. “They may drum me out of the musicological societies,” he said, “but I don’t believe that we should turn our backs on the progress achieved in building and playing modern instruments.”

Opponents of his opinions (he described a baroque violin as a “beautiful product of an Italian craftsman that is then given a hysterectomy”) left the lecture grumbling and found solace in a performance a couple of weeks later in Schenectady by the Hanover Band, an English-based orchestra that recreates the ensemble of Beethoven’s day, with Beethoven-era instruments.

The modern-instrument crowd got to glory in a concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which shared a piece with the Hanover Band: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. The rest of the ASO’s program comprised 20th-century works, which were played with excitement. The Beethoven, however, in common with so many of the older pieces being played by the big orchestras, was dull. Played by the Hanover Band, it was thrilling.

This is by no means a vote for the antique-instrument approach: I agree with Dr. Lang that moderation is necessary and technology should not be ignored. But the use of period instruments has offered players and the public a chance to rebel against what’s become the standard orchestral size and approach, and the revolution may have come in time to awaken the many listeners who have been put to sleep by boring orchestras.

Every classical music listener alive grew up with the tradition of large, Wagnerian orchestras, which assumed the habit of playing music that rarely ventured any earlier than Mozart’s era. With the big orchestras came virtuoso conductors, as distinguishable by style as a singer is by voice. Stokowski rearranged the chairs and took incredible liberties with the scores; Toscanini glued himself to the page but inspired tightness and speed. The names still are weighty: Szell, Reiner, Monteux, and earlier: Mengleberg, Furtwangler, Koussevitzky.

These became star names around the world, bigger stars than the composers, and their preferences dictated the style in which we heard music of any era.

Now there has come a slow change in taste, probably the result of a glut of big, ponderous performances of Mozart symphonies and the like. Given the chance to hear a small group play those symphonies a little differently, a weary ear perks right up. It’s not that period instruments have any great sound: they don’t. But they’re a relief.

Big orchestras have hung on for so long because so much of concert-going depends upon snob appeal, and a music snob is the most insecure of the effete. He needs a big payback, and 85 musicians sawing like mad looks like value for money. Big orchestras are doomed, however: an ever-increasing section of the public won’t tolerate boring performances even as those orchestras continue to price themselves out of the ever-dwindling arts budget.

Those orchestras were designed to play music written only during a couple of decades in the late 19th century; they went on to swallow up the entire repertory because that repertory had been thinned to the point of going back only to the mid 18th century. In a decade or two, we’ll see big orchestras as a rarer phenomenon, even as we enjoy performances by smaller ensembles. And you can put a couple of those smaller ensembles together for a nostalgically large program of Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

Small groups with their funny-sounding instruments not only give the audiences a chance to hear the older repertory played as the composers themselves might have heard it; they more importantly suggest something delightfully illicit, like small whiney pups nipping at the legs of tired old mastiffs. That’s why the music sounds exciting: it’s fueled by rebellion.

Beethoven meant his first symphony to be a rebellious statement: he opened it with a seventh chord, a no-no, plucked yet. He would be pleased to learn that the piece has proven enlightening in yet another revolution.

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