Some stories from the classical music field...


Kennedy Center to take over Washington National Opera

From The Washington Post, January 20, 2011

In what amounts to a rescue operation, the Kennedy Center announced Thursday that it is taking over the Washington National Opera, a company that has been floundering artistically and financially for years.   Under the new "affiliation," as officials described the agreement, the opera aims to restore some of the luster it had lost in recent seasons and increase its productions.   Without the affiliation, the WNO, which was carrying a debt of $12 million, appeared doomed.  The merger, approved by the Kennedy Center's board Wednesday, will take effect July 1. Audiences are unlikely to notice any major changes immediately -- the 2011-12 productions are set -- but Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said several innovations would be coming.  Budget cuts had steadily reduced the number and scale of WNO productions, but officials hope to return to eight offerings a season.  The affiliation leaves the Kennedy Center even more dominant on Washington's performing arts scene. The opera is following in the footsteps of the National Symphony Orchestra, which became an affiliate of the Kennedy Center in 1986.  


Chicago Symphony musicians leaflet audience in support of Detroit colleagues

Posted by Drew McManus on his blog Adaptistration, January 21, 2011

[Last night], the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra distributed leaflets before the evening's concert which expressed support for musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and urged DSO music director Leonard Slatkin to "use his influence to persuade the Board of the DSO to negotiate in a spirit of compromise and respect."  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the evening's concert included substitute musicians from the DSO as well as guest conductor Leonard Slatkin. Since learning of the news last evening, I have been trying to think of another situation where musicians conducted a leafleting activity during a guest conductor appearance in support of colleagues at an orchestra engaged in a work stoppage where said guest conductor served as music director, but I haven't been able to recall anything. Here is a copy of the leaflet distributed by CSO musicians.


Commentary: Gustav Mahler, father of today's classical music scene

Posted by Norman Lebrech on his ArtJournal blog Slipped Disc, January 21, 2011

In the Wall Street Journal, I show how Gustav Mahler created the subscription series, thematic programming and orchestral touring -- all fixtures of musical life in the United States to the present day. You can read the article here. [Here's an excerpt:]

A short, intense man burst through the Carnegie Hall stage door 100 years ago for the last concert of his life. Gustav Mahler should not have been there. The doctor had ordered him to bed and his relations with the New York Philharmonic had broken down at a hostile board meeting. Any maestro today would have canceled the next concert. Mahler, though, was not a quitter.  Ever since he first docked in New York in 1907, he had been intrigued by America's musical potential. Pushed out of the Metropolitan Opera by Arturo Toscanini's animosity, he found the Philharmonic at a low ebb. Taking over as conductor, he fired half of its players and set about reforming America's concert expectations.  Mahler split the Carnegie season into four subscription blocs, each with a thematic base, something no conductor had tried before. As well as a Regular Series, he put in a Beethoven cycle "for the education of lovers of classical music, orchestra and for students." Sunday concerts were for "workers and students" who could not afford full-price tickets, and a Historical Series set out to demonstrate the evolution of music from Bach to the present, a kind of pre-media documentary.  Other conductors planned seasons to attract audiences and applause. Mahler redefined the core purpose of concerts, substituting enlightenment for mere entertainment and reaching out to socially diverse audiences.


Commentary: More Asian children learn Western classical music, but at what cost?

Posted by Colin Holter on, January 19, 2011

I've mentioned before here that the classical music story of the latter half of the 20th century is the large-scale adoption of Western art music practices by Asians, Asian-Americans, and Asian-Europeans. Asian communities must be the only communities in the world where the prestige-value of classical music is still taken seriously as a means of upward mobility and self-betterment.  But I was a bit taken aback to read this Slate review of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua is a mother who got her kids into classical music, and when she first signed them up for lessons, she took responsibility for their development not only as people but as musicians. In other words, she's not just in the business of making adults; she's in the business of making artists. Slate's Ann Hulbert describes in excruciating detail the regimen of "intensely disciplined labor that fuels high performance" undertaken by Chua's daughters. The whole point of this regimen is to prepare her daughters to excel-to establish dominance over their peers and gain access to the most valuable resources (education, employment, husband, etc.) available. Technical mastery of a musical instrument is a useful byproduct; actually giving a shit about the relationship between culture and society, on the other hand, is not on the menu. To borrow from another ideology, namely the Protestant work ethic: What does it profit a middle-schooler to gain facile virtuosity but to miss the entire point of art?


Commentary: What can Western classical music learn from Islamic culture?

Posted by Pliable on his blog On An Overgrown Path, January 20, 2011

Classical music is a linear artform. This is expressed in the traditional sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation.  Contemporary Western culture is increasingly dominated by the hypertext-based web which has a non-linear structure: this non-linearity is evidenced by Twitter, Facebook, and the iPod shuffle. Which may explain the uncomfortable fit between classical music and contemporary culture.  There are thought-provoking parallels between the non-linear nature of web based communications and Islamic culture. Muslim spirituality is a decentred space which has its roots in the Qur'an as the French ethnomusicologist Jean During explains:

"The chapters, or surahs, are not thematic units, nor do they follow any chronology... Thus, the Qur'an appears as multiplex, yet this very multiplicity leads to unity, the key principle in Muslim philosophy.... The physical structure of the mosque, which lacks the processional structure of a Christian church, is another expression of non-linearity. Addition and repetition rather than organic development is central to Islam and this can be seen in the non-linear and non-narrative structure of traditional secular Arab music. It is interesting that addition, repetition and lack of organic development are central to minimalist music, one of the few classical genres that has found widespread acceptance in contemporary Western culture."

Parallels between the structure of contemporary communication and Islamic culture may be coincidental. But the tensions between traditional linear Western classical music and our increasingly non-linear culture are real. Resolving these tensions may be key to determining the future of classical music.

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