The last thing that Alan Gilbert or the New York Philharmonic needs is another affirmation that they have done something important and memorable by producing Le Grand Macabre in May.  There were three (perhaps more?) New York Times articles over 11 days (May 18th, 23rd, 28th), an nice summary over on Anne Midgette’s Washington Post blog, and from just a few days ago there was this over at Newsweek.  Of course our own site added to the frenzy of press/buzz here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – and with good reason!  I’m quite happy to throw my hat in the camp who counts themselves lucky to be one of the few to see this amazing production.  It was everything that I had hoped it would be, and I even got a fancy collectors-edition-style booklet of the libretto with the program.

Some time has gone by since the production (I’m late on my contribution to this, as per my usual), I think it’s enough for me to say that I thought it was great, and to move on to some questions.

After reading all of the press about the production, it seems that everyone who saw it easily and quickly deemed it a huge success.  But I’d love to know if the Philharmonic thought it was a success!  All three nights sold-out, but we know that a sold-out show doesn’t necessarily mean success.  Le Grand Macabre was without question an unusual and elaborate production and must have come with a tremendous expense – just watch this video.  All the extra marketing, and YouTube videos; all the lighting and projections and costumes; (presumably) all the extra rehearsals and percussion instruments; etc, etc, etc.  I think the big question is: was this a successful enough event that the Philharmonic will continue these kinds of productions in the future? Was dealing with disgruntled subscribers worth it?  Was the cost of the “spectacle” worth it?  Was all the marketing and rogue videos worth it?

Of course I hope that the answer to all of these questions is yes.  I would love to see the New York Philharmonic continue to support contemporary music the way it has since Mr. Gilbert has arrived.  It’s clear that he feels very strongly about new music: he brought in Magnus Lindberg, started the Contact! series, and made this incredible Ligeti production happen.  I want to know what else he has planned and what else the Philharmonic is willing and capable of doing.  But, it seems that a lot of it depends on whether or not the Philharmonic thought Macabre was a success.

14 thoughts on “Some thoughts (but mostly questions)”
  1. Zeno-

    Seriously, you need to come to some Great Noise Ensemble concerts. And we need to chat. Your kind of enthusiasm and thoughts on new music are precisely what we need more of in DC.

    To be clear: I have nothing against Oliver Knussen as a composer, a conductor or a curator (hell, I’ll be working with his daughter in the fall!). I think that what the NSO is doing with new music is terrific and hope they’ll continue to do more of it. I also hope I’m wrong about Eschenbach (I probably am, let’s face it). I don’t normally take on a chauvinistic approach to music programming, but when it comes to the NATIONAL Symphony Orchestra, I feel that maybe some chauvinism would be appropriate.

  2. Briefly, Armando, I think that you are incorrect in assuming that the NSO plans to discontinue its Contemporary Music Week permanantly. I have heard, indirectly, from NSO Artistic Administrator Nigel Boon (who has his roots — and allegiences? –in the London and Hamburg- based classical music industry, as you probably know), that he plans to invite Oliver Knussen back for a second guest curating/conducting week. I am sorry if this disappoints you, but Knussen’s Tanglewood, NYC, London, and Calfornia guest curating experience is, in fact, impressive, if biased. Given the current funding crisis at the Kennedy Center (and at the Washington National Opera), my understanding is that it will not be in the upcoming season but probably in the season after that. In this, the NSO would appear to by following the San Francisco and Los Angeles orchestras who have repeatedly invited back George Benjamin (and Knussen) to mold their new music-focused activities.

    I have no longer written off Classical WETA-FM, due, in part and if I may say so, to my own outspoken activities and letter-writing campaign. I thank those who joined me.

    Lastly, a generation ago, I believe that the Washington Performing Arts Society would have had closer relations with such organizations as your Great Noise Ensemble and also the Post-Classical Ensemble. In my opinion, while the NSO and Classical WETA-FM have now joined the Library of Congress in moving forward, the WPAS has joined Placido Domingo’s Washington National Opera in moving backward.

    You mention new American music at the Washington National Opera. Please let me know when the Washington Post runs a series of articles on the new opera commissioning program of the Washington National Opera, as it recently did on the Metropolitan Opera.

  3. Zeno-

    Thanks for your reply to my reply. I think we have different experiences of the Washington new music scene, such as it is. It is my personal dream to see the DC scene grow and thrive to rival New York city and have had this conversation with Nigel Boon, the artistic director of the NSO (he thinks it’s an impossibility, citing some compelling reasons why–themselves cited in an article I wrote for New Music Box which was published last week, if you want to check it out. I remain optimistic, although I admit that it will be a long and difficult road ahead).

    Mind you, I think that new music from ANYWHERE is welcome in the area. I just find that the National Symphony (and yes, the National Opera) should have American composers curating their contemporary music weeks. Just my two cents. (I would LOVE to self-nominate myself, mind you, but since they’ve only had one–John Adams’ residency this year was not a part of a similar event to last year’s festival at the Kennedy Center. I understand there are no plans to revive that event any time soon, although the NSO is doing some very exciting work in new music programming.)

    I have to admit, however, that WETA is a lost cause for me. I do hope, however, that they are broadcasting all of the concerts from the National Gallery, cause I have a vested interest in that, since I had a major work programmed on that series last season.

    Selflish plug time: have you attended any of the concerts I run with Great Noise Ensemble? We would love to have you at them if you haven’t, and I hope that you will say hello when you do. Feel free to check us out online.

  4. correction: Augusta Read Thomas

    I also nominate composer Anne LeBaron as a future Washington National Symphony guest curator.

  5. Mr Bayolo,

    I never suggested that the only worthwhile contemporary music was European contemporary music, although I believe that the two works that I cited the Washington National Symphony performing this autumn 2010 — Matthias Pintscher’s ‘Heroiade-Fragment’ and Magnus Lindberg’s “Parada” are probably stronger than two of the past contemporary works that Washington National Symphony interim music director Ivan Fischer programmed — Henderson’s “Einstein’s Violin” and a Daniel Kellogg Hechinger commission whose name escapes me. (The Kellogg work toured to China with the Washington National Symphony, thus representing American contemporary classical culture.)

    And yes, I do believe that Christoph Eschenbach ushers in a new era for the Washington National Symphony, if not necessarily its sister organization, the Washington National Opera, which is mired in the deep cultural malaise which Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser is currently championing nationwide.

    I cited the Pintscher work because it opens the Washington National Symphony
    subscription season and is prominently paired with the Beethoven #9. I cited the Magnus Lindberg work because he is well known in NYC, the base of Sequenza21 and the majority of its readership.

    Thinking further ahead in the Washington National Symphony season, and without looking, I recall that the Washington National Symphony is doing a the Third Violin Concerto of Augustus Read Thomas, the current Washington National Symphony house composer. I believe it is the third or fourth Washington National Symphony commission of Ms. Thomas. I do not recall the Washington National Symphony doing a work of Jennifer Higdon this coming season, but perhaps they are and I missed it.

    Having heard David Coll’s strong work on the West Coast, I remember looking to see if he was on the Washington National Symphony 2010-11 season, but not seeing his name. Correct me if I am wrong.

    I take no strong issue with the Anglo-phile Washington National Symphony administration inviting Oliver Knussen to lead the Washington National Symphony Contemporary Music week the year before John Adams curated the week. I would welcome George Benjamin to the Washington National Symphony in a future year. I would, however, take strong issue if the Washington National Opera programmed Britten’s Gloriana rather than an American opera.

    Who would you like to see curate future Washington National Symphony Contemporary music weeks? Have you informed the Washington National Symphony of your preferences? I recall that Jeffrey Mumford once self-nominated himself.

    I nominate David Coll, among others, as a Washington National Symphony curator over the coming decade. I am assuming that Mr Coll has recent guest curating experience, either in the Bay Area or in Paris. I believe that he has.

    For your and other’s information, tonight Classical WETA-FM at 9 PM broadcasts its delayed recording of Joel Fan performing, at the National Gallery of Art, piano works of
    Carter, Bolcom, Bermal, and Kirchner. The concert is available on the internet.

    I do not know whether Classical WETA-FM, which as recently as a year ago, did not broadcast American music other than Gershwin, Barber, Bernstein, Copland, and Foote, will also broadcast the National Gallery of Art American contemporary classical music concerts of this past season by Aikman, Corigliano, Lerdahl , Reynolds, Carter, Reich, Wyner, and many others.

  6. Nate-

    That ‘s fantastic. Let me echo Christian’s hope that you’ll continue visiting S21 and finding out about great concerts to attend.


    I get what you’re saying about Grande Macabre being “new” at 30+ years old. I do think that the complexities of concert music and the amounts of time it takes to build a repertoire give it a longer shelf life than the planned obsolescence of most popular music gives it. Thus Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road” can be considered an oldie, but Le Grand Macabre still remains “new.”

    It’s odd, I know, but still…

  7. I think David Coll hit the nail on the head re. Grand Macabre.

    Zeno, I don’t share your optimism for contemporary music at the NSO under Eschenbach, although perhaps it’s because what you seem to be suggesting is that worthwhile contemporary music is EUROPEAN contemporary music. The NSO should program far more American music, I think, than European, what with it being the NATIONAL Symphony Orchestra of the U.S. Slatkin’s programming tastes may, indeed, have been a tad “Hollywoodish,” as it were, but he at least programmed a number of American works.

    (This is not to say that we shouldn’t get to hear contemporary European music in Washington, mind you. I don’t believe in limiting our cultural range either. I just think that we shouldn’t belittle American music in the name of “importance–” nor that foreign nationals should curate the NSO’s contemporary music festival, as was the case two years ago.)

  8. Nate,

    Glad you both attended the Ligeti!

    Hope you’ll be back to our website to find out about more concerts to attend – some of which are quite cost effective (see Steve Layton’s post earlier today!).


  9. My brother and I attended this concert. It was the first time my brother has ever seen a concert at Lincoln Center.
    I think its very important for these great orchestras to be playing “new” music. There are people like me and my brother who are not necessarily a part of the classical music culture or that have a huge knowledge base about older classical music and need a certain amount of novelty and shock along with great music to get us to pay the high ticket prices.

  10. Under Antal Dorati and Mstislav Rostropovich, the National Symphony used to regularly perform (and record) major works of Messiaen (Transfiguration), Gerhard (The Plague), Penderecki (Polish Requiem), Walton, Takemitsu, Schnittke, Norgard, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Gubaidulina, Maxwell Davies, Nordheim, Artyomov, and others; while (some) of those composers were then still with us. Under Slatkin, contemporary classical music became more ‘tokenist’ – in my opinion – with occasional and out of the blue performances of less important works such as Wolfgang Rihm’s “In-Schrift”, James MacMillan’s “Britannia,” and Steve Martland’s orchestral version of “Patrol” (I think that is what it was) — as well as Boulez’s “Rituel”. Interim NSO music director Ivan Fisher did not know contemporary classical music, although he performed Robert Henderson’s “Einstein’s Violin” and a premiere by Daniel Kellogg.

    What NSO contemporary classical music will look like under Christoph Eschenbach is more promising, although uncertain. He will open this autumn with Matthias Pintscher’s ‘Heroiade-Fragment’ (strangely paired with Beethoven #9), and then Susanna Mälkki will bring Magnus Lindberg’s “Parada”, which is old hat by New York City and Boston standards. Whether 2011-12 will witness any major works by Henze or Birtwistle is an open question.

    Out in SF, Tilson Thomas has continued to champion Robin Holloway, although I imagine that his “Clarissa” opera will probably appear with the Santa Fe Opera or the Berkeley Opera before it appears at the San Francisco Opera. I don’t really know why this is the case, as the SFO has done now Messiaen, Ligeti, and Henze (if not a Birtwistle opera). A spoken commitment to contemporary opera on David Gockley’s part would be helpful at this point in time, I believe. (The Washington National Opera, nominally under Placido Domingo, has abandoned its promise to Congress of a second staging of an American opera each year. I hope that the Washington National Opera will some day witness Alan Gilbert regularly conducting second stagings of American operas, and perhaps world premieres.)

  11. I think I agree with David in response to Josh – there is almost no excuse that the NY premiere of this work happened so long after it was written (and revised). BUT, isn’t it really the Met or City Opera that should be hanging their heads? They should have been the ones producing this opera. I still think the Phil should get props for doing it here when nobody else would… even if it did take so long for it to happen.

    Christian – I’m sure it will. I just still wonder if donors and subscribers will see that award as a pro or con. All I really care about is that the “adventurous programming” continues…

  12. I disagree. I think its a risk, but perhaps not like the one you were thinking of. Despite Ligeti having already passed away, the fact that this work has now been performed twice in the last decade in the US (maybe more?) is a sign that it can – even w/a minimal staging as w/the NYPhil- be part of a normal season more often. This is what’s needed, to extend the repertoire, and this work really pushes. And it’s fantastic. The date on a work only tells half the story over whether something is contemporary or not.

  13. The only thing that has irked me about this production is that it has been cast as the NY Philharmonic taking a bold initiative in programming contemporary music…. that isn’t contemporary at all. Thirty three years is an eternity in the larger culture. The composer has passed already and his legacy has stirred for long enough that you’ll rarely find a classical music fan who has bad things to say about him. It sort of went halfway towards taking a risk and halfway towards actually being contemporary. In that sense, I think they just found a new way to appease people who were already interested in going to classical concerts instead of finding a way to bring in a real new audience, which I assume is a big part of what they were going for. That’s been my take on the whole thing at least.

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