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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“Bite-sized” Masterpieces

Want to hear to some great music but don’t have the time (or attention span) to sit down and listen to a whole opera or an hour-plus-long symphony? Have no fear! There are plenty of pieces of classical music out there that don’t take a Bruckner-sized chunk out of your day; works that are mere minutes long, in fact. (Interestingly, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote three operas that are each around ten minutes long!) Here are a six of my favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces, all of which are self-contained works that are seven minutes or less (not movements from a longer piece). Overall, it’s only about twenty-five minutes of music total. That’s basically one episode of The Office!

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 3?

1. Igor Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955)

Combine one of the most famous composers of the twentieth-century with one of the most famous tunes in the world and you get Igor Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky composed this short orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in 1955, as an 80th birthday present for the French conductor Pierre Monteux (who had conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring back in 1913). Clocking in at less than a minute long, the Greeting Prelude is far from a straightforward adaptation. Stravinsky transforms this simple (and rather banal) melody into a brief showpiece for orchestra, full of wide leaps, unusual chords, and cheeky wit, resulting in a surprisingly amusing setting of the song that has been embarrassing birthday “guests of honor” for decades.

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