music from the inside out

I would highly recommend the documentary film that is currently touring around select cities in the US right now. It’s entitled Music from the Inside Out, and it features the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Hardly any other orchestra in the U.S. has such a storied and illustrious history, and the musicians are some of the finest exponents of their respective instruments in the world. This sensitively made film really digs to the core of what it is like to be an orchestral musician, and what this special and cloistered world is to those who both live in it and make their living from it. Click here to find where and when this wonderful film will appear next.

new and/or unfamiliar – fear and hostility – why?

I was looking at the Oregon Symphony’s Web site the other day, and noticed a section which allowed patrons to post reviews of concerts (presumably those reviews which are published are only the positive ones). Here is part of a letter which caught my eye:

One thing I enjoyed also was the lack of modernistic atonal music. I guess it is necessary to play that but perhaps it ought to be another series like “pops” for people who enjoy it.

I’ve long been puzzled by the disinterest or downright hostility towards new and/or unfamiliar music. I understand that the patron pays good money to see a concert, and they don’t want to hear something which they don’t enjoy, but does the concert hall necessarily need to be a museum? In addition, don’t we also pay good money to see things which are not necessarily pleasant, such as the war photography of James Nachtwey, or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List? As a further question, don’t our ears “evolve” as we listen to a wider variety of music, so that something which seems fearsomely complex and incoherent can, after exposure to other similar works, begin to seem familiar and interesting? I quote the following review of a contemporary composer of some renown:

All impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was anything as incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music. The most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony, and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.

The composer? Ludwig van Beethoven. The piece? The most-agreeable Overture to Fidelio. The point is, to many of his time, Beethoven was incomprehensible noise. Knowledgeable patrons and critics continued to produce concerts and give favorable reviews, and over time his work gained greater favor. My point here is that symphony orchestras, as an essential part of their mission, need to promote and disseminate new music, or music which is worthy but not widely known. To not do so is a disservice to the communities they serve, and the greater good of Art.

I am thankful that people such as the patron who wrote to the Symphony’s Website care enough to buy tickets season after season, and that they are so passionate about what they hear and see that they write in to the management, music director, and even individual musicians. We are lucky in Portland to have such devoted followers. All I ask is that audiences listen with open ears, read the program notes before the performances of unfamiliar works, and come to concerts expecting the new and unusual as well as the familiar warhorses. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, audiences might come in greater numbers for these new “classics”.

Acoustics – can you hear me now?

A good article on acoustics for the audience, and how, even in a great hall, where you sit can make a huge difference in what you hear. For example – in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall here in Portland, you spend the most money for the Dress Circle seats, which are in the formost portion of the huge overhanging balcony, but these seats are probably the second worst in the house (after those on the main floor which are underneath the balcony) – they are great for looking, but not necessarily for listening. The best seats for just hearing the overall sound of the orchestra are those waaay up in the nosebleed section, the highest part of the balcony. They’re also cheapest – go figure!

Here’s the link to the Anne Midgette article in the NY Times.