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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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.

Continue reading “Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)”