Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)

This is the third installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Programming (Diversity):

Ah, the classics… Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. Names that appear on countless concert programs year after year. Names that fill “best of” lists and those cheesy classical compilation albums. Names that pretty much any person would recognize, whether they are familiar with classical music or not. Names that have stood the test of time.

However, as wonderful as these composers and their music are, something is missing. Where are the women composers? Where are the non-white composers? Where are the living composers?

One burgeoning issue that classical organizations are now facing regards the subject of repertoire and programming. Each year, when orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, there is an alarming focus on the same dead, white (mostly European), and male composers. Little space, if any at all, is left for variety—namely new works and/or works by minorities. (This post focuses on the latter area. The first—the issue of new music—will be the subject of the next installment.)

As such, the following question has become more pertinent than ever in this day and age:

How can orchestras better reflect the diversity of our modern world?

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The canon, not the cannon!

The notion of the classical music canon is mostly to blame for this phenomenon. Similar to other forms of art such as painting, literature, and film, the classical canon consists of what are considered to be the “greatest” pieces of music ever written—ones that are time-tested and deemed worthy of being heard over and over again. However, this canon is naturally restricting. Let me explain why.

Now, the classical canon didn’t always exist. Pre-1800s, most concert audiences wanted to hear the newest pieces from the hottest composers. (Haydn’s visit to London is a perfect example of this—people would often flock to concerts that featured his latest symphony.) As the Romantic era got underway, though, concertgoers gradually became less interested in the new and innovative and turned their attention to the works of past “masters”—figures such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart—who, by this point, had all been long dead. Beethoven, whose music had received mixed reception during his lifetime, was particularly lauded and over time, he became the stoic figurehead of Western art music. Furthermore, the concert hall was no longer a place for mere entertainment—the music heard within its walls needed to be serious, contemplative, and morally uplifting.

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Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes

This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.

Program Notes:

After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.

However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.

So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.

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John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music”

This is the first installment of a new series I am calling Quick TakesSince I am a busy grad student and don’t always have boatloads of time to write lengthy, in-depth blog posts (as much as I would like that!), Quick Takes will hopefully allow me to generate more occasional posts that shorter and blurb-like. Each will be around 250-500 words (roughly speaking) and focus on one specific item – a favorite piece of mine, a composer who I am currently into, or anything else of musical interest.


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American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naïve and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

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