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Spinning tunes with Alan Gilbert

My long-time favorite MP3 download site eMusic has its own little online magazine. One of its features is “Jukebox Jury”, where a musician sits down with the interviewer to chat while listening to and commenting on various tracks played. The latest guest is none other than the N.Y. Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Alan Gilbert. The interview covers a lot of ground in a nicely casual way, with Gilbert listening and then giving his take on everything from his own conducting of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, to tracks featuring Christopher Rouse, Magnus Lindberg, Art Tatum, Uri Caine, John Adams, even The Field and Radiohead.

Comments

Comment from Richard Mitnick
Time: January 2, 2010, 7:28 pm

You might like to know that Maestro Gilbert has recorded spots for Q2, the eclectic 24/7/365 web stream of the new WQXR. Q2 was wnyc2.

I think that his willingness to do spots for Q2 speaks to the value of Q2 and his endorsement of New Music.

Comment from Nathan Brock
Time: January 5, 2010, 11:02 am

OK, so I’m feeling in a punchy mood this morning, so here goes.

I’m getting a bit sick of classical musicians using Radiohead transcriptions as a way of expanding their audience and at least appearing “relevant” to people unaccustomed to classical music. It’s like a code – look, I’m cool, I’ve got a version of “No Surprises” on my album. All respect to Radiohead, and I have no problem with people wanting to attract new audiences or include pop or pop-inspired materials alongside classical, but aren’t there other choices out there?

Comment from Eric L
Time: January 5, 2010, 5:59 pm

Yeah. Seriously. You’re right on Nathan.

It’s also kind of symbolic of how behind the times the NYPhil is. They’re just instituting a new music series, when others have been doing it for years. I’m all for more opportunities for composers, but their new Contact! series isn’t exactly breaking any new ground despite the enthusiasm from the hyperventilating critics.

As with the whole Radiohead transcriptions thing…I’m not sure if people realize that the first Chris O’Riley RH album came out in 2003. That’s seven years ago. It’s the equivelent of a someone saying they like hip-hop and just discovered Kayne West’s first album….from 2004. It’s old news, you’re behind the times and it’s really not all that cool. Just “do your thang’ with some creativity, start rethinking programming, the concert experience etc. and stop the ‘I’m so cool’ name-dropping. It’s almost slightly sickening.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: January 6, 2010, 10:56 am

Back in the 60’s/70’s James Booker was playing a hybrid of New Orleans piano, contemporary composition, Bach, the Beatles, and everything else you might imagine years before O’Riley’s recordings. And Jelly Roll Morton did it farther back than that.

But I think picking on specific musicians is kind of cheap. From where I sit, the name dropping that sickens you Eric is coming from the NY press and publicists. Not the musicians (i.e. Alan or Christopher – both of whom probably have a more sophisticated relationship to the history of music than you imply).

Comment from Christian
Time: January 7, 2010, 2:10 am

On the positive side of the ledger, has Lorin Maazel even heard ‘No Surprises’?

Yes, the NYPO has a long way to go before it’s close to cutting edge, but I’m heartened by the changes we’ve seen this year.

Glad that Gilbert is giving props to Q2 as well.

Comment from zeno
Time: January 7, 2010, 1:29 pm

Some people were also initially heartened by incoming Lorin Maazel who conducted the New York Philharmonic, I believe, in Steven Hartke’s Symphony No. 3, Poul Ruders’ Nightshade Trilogy, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Quick Blast, and some other new and unusual works by Susan Botti and others.

Comment from Christian
Time: January 7, 2010, 7:47 pm

True, but if you look at Maazel’s track record, he’s far more of a traditionalist than Gilbert appears to be. You’re right though; it’s early going.

Comment from zeno
Time: January 8, 2010, 10:15 am

In my brief comment, Christian, I didn’t mean to take away from my VERY strong support of Alan Gilbert and his early programming. (Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette has wondered in print whether Alan Gilbert — as well as Kent Nagano — actually has “the chops” for a major league orchestral career. I STRONGLY disagree.)

However, reading your comment, I immediately remembered Loren Maazel’s early NYPhil programming of a work by soprano Susan Botti and a work by NY Phil percussionist Christopher S. Lamb, as well as the more mainstream contemporary orchestral works by Turnage, Ruders , and Hartke.

Loren Maazel quickly descended, in his New York Phil programming, into an unimaginative traditionalism (such as I fear the soon-to-be-former Washington National Opera — under Michael Kaiser’s arts management consulting and its “new business model”– will pursue when it announces its five opera season this coming Tuesday).

I expect Alan Gilbert to strongly support American and international contemporary orchestral work and opera over coming decades of service.

I remember thinking the Susan Botti and Christopher Lamb “concertos” and the Hartke/Hilliard Ensemble ‘cycle” as mildly “cutting edge” by orchestral standards of the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time yesterday (as I don’t now) to try to recall what other new or newer American composers Maazel programmed those first seasons. (Do you or Galen — or your students — have time to dig them up?)

Thanks.

Comment from Eric L
Time: January 8, 2010, 12:17 pm

Well…there’s always the Adams On the Transmigration of Souls. The Hartke came a bit later. There was the Turnage “Scherzoid” and I believe an Augusta Read Thomas piece for voice and orchestra that was recorded alongside the Hartke. The past few years have been really disappointing, though I’m really glad Esa-Pekka gave the world premiere of his piano concerto in town. The Tan Dun piano concerto on the other hand, was a genuine disaster critically…though I wasn’t there, so I’m not sure how the audience reacted.

I think we need to be careful not to confuse with simple programming of contemporary music with “championing.” Us composers are so starved for opportunities that we’ll take anything sometimes…if people play more contemporary music, that’s good! Volume and quantity does not championing make.

What I really want to see Alan Gilbert do, is to program new music, but to do so in such a way that provides a context, not just slap some new commission next to a warhorse. I think he’s more aware of that then Maazel…but that doesn’t mean he’ll definitely do so. Example? Take the Phil concert from the 14th-16th. What does Adams’ Wound Dresser have to do with Haydn, Schubert and Berg? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if Gilbert knows either.

Why is this a problem? I remember a well-meaning David Zinman programming Adams’ Naive and Sentimental Music after an intermission. Right before? Yo-yo and some young kids playing the Beethoven Triple. A mass exodus during intermission; people were here to hear Yo-Yo and could care less about the Adams. It was a genuinely sad sight to witness. OTOH, had there been some logical reason (or dramatic reason…or whatever) for the Adams to follow the Beethoven, perhaps not so many people would have gotten up and left.

Comment from Carson Cooman
Time: January 8, 2010, 1:56 pm

zeno: The Susan Botti work (EchoTempo) was not programmed by Maazel. It was done under Kurt Masur, before Maazel joined the NYPhil. (The other pieces cited were done under his tenure, but not that one. The Botti commission came about through Lamb who, when asked whom he wanted to write him a concerto, chose Susan.)

Comment from Christian
Time: January 8, 2010, 2:19 pm

I think the NYPO appears to ‘get it’ this time out. They’ve got to change in order to remain relevant. The BSO, CSO, and LA Phil are all long-standing in their commitment to adventurous programming. While I’m no expert on audience stats, it appears that they’re more vibrant institutions as a result.

Plus, with the acquisition of WQXR by WNYC, New Yorkers are getting a steadier diet of ‘less stodgy’ fare. Call me an optimist, but I think the indie classical movement may even breach the programming protocols of Lincoln Center.

Comment from zeno
Time: January 8, 2010, 3:31 pm

Thanks everyone!

Eric, you make several interesting points, and I agree with you about virtually everything and especially your major point that the context of new orchestral music programming is so important.

I am looking at your NY Phil Thomas Hampson upcoming program, and it actually strikes me as somewhat typical of current major ASOL (oops, League of American Orchestras) programming — a Haydn Symphony named ‘the Passion’ plus John Adam’s “Wound Dresser/Walt Whitman” cycle — followed after intermission by “two movements” by the Viennese Schubert coupled with “three movements” by the fellow Austrian of ninety years later, Berg. ( I imagine – without any particular current indicator – that some patrons near the exit rows will wait and then leave after the first of the Berg movements.)

It is actually an interesting — although passe way – – of including two twentieth c. works on a conservative subscription program (not that it excites me; or others reading here, I imagine). Of course, we must ask loudly — ‘Where is the 21st c. music??’ (Will younger patrons rush to Adams’s “The Wound Dresser” twenty years on?)

Christian, I’d like too to be called an optimist, but I’m down here watching the slow crumbling of the ideal of the Washington National Opera, which almost a decade ago promised the U.S. Congress that it would program one American opera every season, and which also used to program seven operas a season.

They did program three or four American operas over the past decade, but their promise to Congress appears on the verge of being abrogated. (Somewhat ironically, Leonard Slatkin is conducting the premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s “Life is A Dream” this summer, in Santa Fe. The Washington National Opera was supposed to specialize in second productions of American operas.)

I wish that the Washington National Opera “got it.”

The National Symphony Orchestra’s Artistic Advisor Nigel Boon speaks in open forums about how he’s trying so hard to find proper contexts for the introduction of a little more contemporary orchestral music. He has repeatedly stressed how important the “contexts” of the introduced new works must be. I will leave it to future scholars to access whether all this expressed care accomplished anything. (Recall that the NSO is awaiting a new conductor, Christoph Eschenbach.)

I hope that the National Symphony “gets it!”

And thanks for the correction, Carson. I was trying to take care to remember that Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls” was commissioned and recorded under Kurt Masur, and didn’t think about who was the actual commissioning originator of the few works that I happened to recall off-hand — such as the Susan Botti, Christopher Lamb, and Stephen Hartke.

Comment from Eric L
Time: January 8, 2010, 4:17 pm

Thanks zeno.

Since I’m actually working on something related to this right now, my mind is racing a bit, so I’ll give a another go in adding to this discussion. To preface this, I’d like to identify myself as an optimist as well; I just don’t think the orchestras will be the first to change, or change enough. Everything else around us is moving on, and we’re still stuck in the mud. I’d like to think some conservatory kids will REALLY “get it” one day, and band together, form their own entrepreneurial start-up ensemble (and not just the recent garden-variety new music groups) and give the institutions some much needed competition.

With all that said, Christian, I think I’m not as optimistic as you are. Your ‘get it’ involves catching up to what the other orchestras in the country are doing. But what does that accomplish? It may boost ticket sales a bit here and there, or give the NYTImes critics (they’re really the only ones left aren’t they?) something to talk about, how does any of this really engage with our ever-changing culture as a whole? I’d say very little. What does performing Ligeti’s opera semi-staged with the Phil mean to culture at large? Why should people care about it? Are those issues that the Phil is answering? (Just to add…I’m a huge Ligeti fan, ever since I first heard his Violin and Piano Concertos when I was 16)

I think orchestras were stupid not to pursue something like a special series around The Rest is Noise or Musicophilia. Bring in Alex Ross or Oliver Sacks and program some festival–i.e. context around that. A partnership like that would’ve been beneficial to everyone and draw some real contextual attention both through word-of-mouth and critically…not the kind of ‘useless’ attention being showered on a new music series by the Phil. [Why? If I heard one piece I really liked on the first CONTACT! concert, would I necessarily wax enthusiastic about it and tell my friends to go to the next one, esp when there’s really no connection between anything on this first concert and the next concert other than the fact that the music is ‘new?’ Maybe…but it’s not a very strong form of branding, and any word-of-mouth effect would be inevitably diluted]

Basically, what I’m saying is, orchestras and chamber music institutions need to start imagining all their programming on a narrative, thematic context; but not the sort of ‘thematic’ that classical musicians seem to love: e.g. “Spring,” or “Czech composers”…essentially meaningless, irrelevant and unbearably-cheesy groupings.

It’ll take a very different mindset, and to do these things within established institutions where everyone has their own selfish stakes maybe very difficult. Witness trying to get healthcare passed through our legislature.
That’s why I think it’ll have to come from the outside. All you idealistic young musicians…are you listening?