Just a couple days ago, local classical music critic Brett Campbell wrote an omnibus review of classical music events from the latter months of 2012. Among the concerts reviewed was the opening concert of 45th Parallel’s 2012-2013 concert season, entitled “Octetlandia”. It paired two little-heard works for the string octet with the great octet of Felix Mendelssohn. The audience response was exceptional (as was the attendance). I’ve continued to hear positive comments about the concert from patrons that I’ve run into around town in the months since.
Here is the section of the Oregon Arts Watch article that pertained to the concert:
. . . 45th Parallel‘s November 15 concert, which had a lot a going for it: accomplished orchestral musicians from the Oregon Symphony and other worthy institutions, most with chamber music experience; a good cause (supporting Portland’s all-classical public radio station); a buoyant certified classic (Mendelssohn’s familiar Octet), and a pair of short, dazzling works by one of 20th century’s towering composers (Shostakovich). Because these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece, we can’t expect the same level of mastery of chamber works you’d see in, say, a Friends of Chamber Music or Chamber Music Northwest concert; one member admitted that the group had spent only a week with one of the pieces, Bruch’s seldom performed Octet.
It turned out to be a pretty thin piece anyway. I’m all for playing more than just the usual warhorses (like the Mendelssohn octet), but the time spent rehearsing Bruch’s octet would have been more profitably used to give the Mendelssohn classic an interpretation with more character than the relatively bland one offered here. Booting the Bruch would also have allowed the concert to last an hour, without an intermission, which in turn would have permitted more time for socializing at the reception afterward. And the audience would have left energized rather than enervated; I spotted several dozers during the Bruch — quite a contrast from the spontaneously explosive applause that erupted for the one really exciting performance — the Scherzo, from Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11.
Those of us in the ensemble that played that night were taken aback by this reaction to the concert (with the caveat that we do recognize that you could survey five different attendees of a given concert and get five different accounts of what actually took place there). 45th Parallel artistic director and violinist Greg Ewer gave this response in the comment section of Campbell’s piece:
Wow Brett. Way to see the glass as half empty! We are lucky enough to live in Portland, which is bursting at the seams with talented, committed artists, and your take, after hearing an entire season’s worth of music, is to ask for pity on the local ‘musically overstuffed music journalist’? Thank goodness you don’t speak for 45th Parallel’s audience members. As my esteemed colleague Justin Kagan remarked this morning, “More than a few spoke of crying at the beatific final measures of the slow movement of the Bruch.” You know…the Bruch…that piece you suggested we should have “booted” to allow “more time for socializing at the reception afterward.”
And your comment that “these are primarily orchestral musicians who lack the time to really develop chemistry with each other or interpretive depth in a given piece?” WTF Brett?? Way to slap a glass ceiling onto the musicians of your community. As the Artistic Director of 45th Parallel, I believe in taking risks. Many of us get up on stage having just explored a piece for the first time, knowing full well that with another week and a few more rehearsals it could be more polished. There is bound to be variation from concert to concert because personnel, repertoire, venues and group chemistry are always shifting. We are most decidedly not the same as travelling musicians who play the same 2 or 3 programs in different cities throughout the year. It is not a useful comparison. And even so, I say with confidence that some of the more magical performances from our first four years would be measure up nicely, even against the stiffest of competition.
We explore lesser known works, both new and old. We bring musicians together who have sometimes never met one another, and we dive into as much musical exploration as time and circumstances permit …and we do it with a generous spirit of love and enthusiasm for our challenging art form! Why must you repeatedly trot out the tired notion that because musicians are gainfully employed and busy, that the community shouldn’t really expect much from us? It’s shortsighted and frankly disrespectful to suggest it.
You are right that the classical music world needs to have its collective eyes wide open and its thinking caps on in order to respond to a changing musical landscape. You have been a powerful local advocate for this way of thinking, and I applaud you for it. But just as you constantly challenge all of us, I would challenge you as well, to be more open to musical offerings outside your wheelhouse, and to reevaluate your notion of what it means to be a ‘local’ musician in our modern day musical landscape.
And then Oregon Arts Watch’s Barry Johnson stepped in with today’s post, which aimed both to defend Campbell (who I think doesn’t need much defending, I’d love to see a full-length article that explores what he thinks the options are for classical music organizations in this time of maximum uncertainty – that would perhaps serve to clear up whatever misapprehensions we performers had about his reaction to our concert). He starts his piece thusly:
ArtsWatch classical music critic Brett Campbell is perfectly capable of defending both himself and his arguments after he posted his roundup of reviews of holiday season concerts a couple of days ago,“MusicWatch reviews: Less is more.”
But because his primary contention seems to have hit a nerve in the music community, maybe I can help him out a little, by providing a little more context for his primary suggestion.
In case you didn’t read his post (and you should, it navigates a LOT of music, some of it beautifully played), Brett argues that music directors often stuff their programs too full of music, to the detriment of the both the audience and the music itself. In doing so, he addressed the processes that go into making a concert a little bit, specifically the amount of rehearsal necessary to prepare a complicated piece of music for the public. And he considered the capacity of the audience to digest large chunks of that complicated music.
I’m not sure why some of the responses to his post were angry ones. Maybe the commenters think that both of those subjects should be off-limits to the critic, even though they are critical to the experience of the audience (and the musicians, if you think about it).
But with the performing arts in general and classical music in particular, we’ve reached a point of dwindling resources and shrinking audiences. And perhaps it’s time to begin to re-consider our processes and experiences. Strike that “perhaps.” It IS time.
And in any case, Brett’s arguments don’t come completely out of the blue. Artists and arts administrators are thinking about them in other places, and some have even begun to experiment with new models. Maybe classical music has resisted that experimentation more than most other forms. (And maybe strike that “maybe”?)
Johnson is a big idea guy, this is clear, and he very skillfully pivots away from what really offended us performers (that orchestral musicians can’t put together meaningful explorations of non-orchestral music in a relatively short rehearsal period) and moved it into the realm of how organizations can better serve their audiences while also being true to themselves, and being adventurous while also keeping the bills paid.
So, there’s all of the information surrounding this minor kerfuffle. What do you think about this?