Reflections on the Problems of Programming

Today’s post comes courtesy of a guest author, Tanner Cassidy, one of my good friends and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara. Tanner is currently working on his MA/PhD in music theory and is also a talented saxophonist, conductor, and composer. Below, he reflects on an issue that I have written about before on this blog and will continue to address in future posts—the problem of uninspired programming in classical music.

Tanner Cassidy

This past week, I was emailed notifications that both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the LA Opera have announced their seasons for the upcoming ’20/21 season. To my dismay, I found the upcoming seasons from both organizations to be underwhelming, relying on overplayed hits and lacking in diversity. CSO’s email advertises a night of Italian opera favorites (at best, no doubt only as fresh as Puccini), a performance of Amadeus with live score (a wonderful experience I just had there a couple of years ago), and a list of concert highlights for the season. The newest piece on this list is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece nearing its 107th birthday. Besides this, other composers featured are Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss, with some of their most oft programmed (and hence blandest) pieces scheduled.

LA Opera paints a similarly safe picture, with Il Trovatore AND Aida in the same season. Verdi wrote 25 operas, and yet the best we can apparently do is program the same few that are always performed. Verdi is juxtaposed against two German operas, Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser, also works programmed (perhaps) too often. Rossini also makes an appearance, with his La Cenerentola on the schedule. A work also performed frequently, at least it’s a secondary classic (unlike its cousin, the excessively performed Barber of Seville). Finally, the final opera of the season is by Missy Mazzoli, titled Breaking the Waves. The only break from the monotony of tradition and “classics.”

Why do I mention any of this? Wonderful and innovative work is happening all over if you’re willing to look. What’s the point of whining about what these major institutions are programming?

For me, it seems to reflect a growing conservative trend in these particular organizations, one that I’ve begun to notice trickle down to smaller local organizations. For example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year has had a horrible impact on innovation in programming. One of the most oft-performed and esteemed composers in the history of European classical music, Beethoven does NOT need any more attention on these organizations’ calendars. If anything, the occasion should be marked by a season-long moratorium on his music. Despite this, CSO is advertising in bold lettering that next season is featuring the Missa Solemnis, one of the few orchestral works not performed by the orchestra this current season (this season excessively has featured all the symphonies and all the piano sonatas, because God knows we never see Moonlight Sonata performed).

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32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday)

“Ludwig van Beethoven is the most frequently performed of all classical composers. He was also a radical artist who constantly reinvented himself, expanded the boundaries of music and posed questions to society. Even today he inspires people all over the world.” So proclaims the homepage of BTHVN 2020, an organization that joins in this year with hundreds of others worldwide to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous, beloved, and—indeed—frequently performed composers in the Western canon.

The birthday boy. Source

The festivities will be wide-ranging and immense. Beethoven’s symphonies, overtures, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets will appear on programs the world over, and, in many cases, entire cycles of these works will be presented. New recordings of time-tested favorites will be made, and classic recordings will be remastered. (Case in point: a recently-released, 123-disc box set claims to offer “the most complete Beethoven anthology ever produced.”) Symposiums, lectures, essays, articles, and books will seek to reveal new insights about the composer. In all, Beethoven will receive a truly comprehensive celebration that he could have only imagined during his lifetime.

Yet, amidst all this merriment, there’s something about this whole celebration that’s a bit overwhelming, redundant, and even fatiguing. And there are some things that I feel need to be said about this. Below, I have compiled a list of 32 miscellaneous thoughts about Beethoven, his music, and his 250th birthday celebration. Why 32? It’s mostly inspired by the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it’s also because Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas. (Come to think of it, those two things are probably connected…) These musings are wide-ranging and in no particular order. I would also like to emphasize that many of these express my opinions. Some you may agree with, others you may disagree with. And that’s 100% fine! At the end of it all, though, it’s clear that there’s still much left to be said about Beethoven. Anyway, here we goooooo…

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Krumping with Rameau

As I stated in my November 2018 post “Debussy + Trampoline (shameless self-plug!), in the art world, there are times when the combination of two or more dissimilar elements can lead to something truly astonishing and transporting.

Another case in point: this incredible production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les Indes galantes. Rameau’s work is technically an opéra-ballet, which unites both sung and danced elements to create a dramatic whole. In this particular staging, though (from the Paris Opera in fall 2019), Baroque music and period instruments lives in harmony with… krumping? Yup. For their updated reimagining, film director Clément Cogitore and choreographer Bintou Dembélé chose to use modern dance styles throughout the opera instead of historically-accurate ballet.

The original opera is, quite frankly, a bit of a Eurocentric (i.e., racist) mess when considered from a modern standpoint. The plot follows various love stories set in “exotic” locations (the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia, North America) and ends with a peaceful coming-together of Europeans and Native Americans courtesy of a “savage” dance. Yikes and double yikes. However, this modern staging somehow appears to transcend all of that, more bluntly addressing issues of prejudice, otherness, and what it truly means to be a global community.

At the very least, though, it’s a mesmerizing production to watch. Check out the two clips below and see for yourself…