By Andrew Byrne in New York
As the Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us and our thoughts turn to the lazy days of summer, I thought it might be a good time to take a look back on some musical highlights of the past season. Specifically, I wanted to mention three projects. Each in their own way showed fresh and imaginative programming and also created a buzz in New York. One is an example of creative orchestral programming; another a series showcasing wildly diverse musical styles; and the last a cultural festival that led to a discussion of larger political and social issues.
And it just so happens that each of these three projects happened at Carnegie Hall.
1. Spring for Music
Working in reverse chronological order is Spring for Music, a series of concerts featuring orchestras from around North American showcasing adventurous programming. This fourth installment of Spring for Music, which took place in May, featured New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, Winnipeg Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, and Pittsburgh Symphony. Of all the concerts, the appearance by Seattle Symphony Orchestra led by its music director Ludovic Morlot garnered the most press and interest.
Seattle Symphony’s program was built around Become Ocean, a newly commissioned work by the Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams. In a remarkable stroke of luck, a couple of weeks before the concert it was announced that Become Ocean had won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. What better promotion could you ask for? And a large audience turned up at Carnegie Hall to hear the New York premiere of Become Ocean. John Luther Adams—not to be confused with John Adams of Nixon in China fame—has been described as an environmental composer. His music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of his home state of Alaska. Become Ocean embodies its subject at a visceral level, unfolding in a series of waves that swell and recede unhurriedly over 40 minutes. To place this score in an appropriate context, the program also included Edgard Varèse’s Deserts, a modernist work from the early 1950s that explores dimensions of outer and inner spaces; and Claude Debussy’s La Mer, an Impressionist homage to the sea.
Here, the tired overture-concerto-symphony model was abandoned for a more creative approach centred around a brand-new piece of music. The orchestra’s risk-taking was rewarded with a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall and a heap of positive press. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert was recorded and broadcast by the local radio station WQXR and can be heard here.
As a postscript, it was recently announced this year’s Spring for Music was to be the last one. Despite herculean efforts from visionary artistic director Tom Morris, it has not been possible sustain funding for such an costly project. Bringing orchestras to Carnegie Hall is an expensive proposition.
2. collected stories
In April, the composer David Lang, curated a weeklong series of concerts in Zankel Hall called collected stories. Reflecting his own omnivorous tastes as a composer and as an artistic director of the Bang on a Can collective, this project featured a wildly diverse lineup of musicians. The unifying theme here was the idea of storytelling in music, and each program was tagged with a topic (“hero,” “spirit,” “love/loss,” “travel,” “(post)folk,” “memoir”). As Lang put it, “collected stories divides the world not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell.”
The tone is set by the first concert “hero,” in which Benjamin Bagby’s performance of “Beowulf” was followed by Harry Partch’s The Wayward, his raucous celebration of 1930s hobo culture. On the following evening with “spirit,” Arvo Pärt’s meditation on the Crucifixion of Christ in his Passio was paired with Tuvan throat-singing. The next night with “love/loss,” folk-tinged pieces by Julia Wolfe, Nico Muhly, and Donnacha Dennehy were preceded by a set by a quirky hip-hop group The Uncluded. And so on.
The best advocate for this exciting project is Lang himself. In a series of engaging videos, Lang talks in greater detail about the individual themes and the groups he invited to participate in the festival. Videos can be found here.
While there was some skepticism about the marketability of collected stories and whether the sheer diversity of offerings would confuse the public, such fears provided unfounded. The series attracted sizable and diverse audiences who were clearly intrigued by this varied feast. It is a good model for programming in general: let’s stop telling the same stories.
3. Vienna: City of Dreams
And the last project is a project I was involved with—Vienna: City of Dreams.
The festival, which took place in February and March, not only included music of many types but also panel discussions, film series, exhibitions, cabaret and more, at Carnegie Hall and 24 other venues in New York. Some of my more unkind friends did ask the question about what was so special about this festival. Isn’t every season at Carnegie Hall a Vienna festival? After all so much standard classic repertoire comes from Vienna. Point taken, but this festival included an unprecedented seven performances of the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera as well as a bunch of contemporary music, which is rarely heard in New York.
And besides inspiring performances, the festival provided a perfect forum for the Vienna Philharmonic to address some outstanding issues. Most important of these was for the orchestra to finally own up to its past and its complicity during the Nazi era. Granted it did take them almost seven decades to get round to it but I guess kudos to the leadership of the orchestra for finally shining some light on the orchestra’s role during the dark period of the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond. Three panel discussions were organized exploring aspects of Vienna’s cultural history, including one called “How did the Cultured, Creative Society of Vienna Lose its Moral Compass? Coming to Terms with History,” which focused on the Nazi era. Videos of the panel discussions can be seen here.
Vienna: City of Dreams received a torrent of press, both for the performances and also for the themes raised in the festival. [Here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/arts/music/city-of-dreams-festival-to-be-celebration-and-reckoning.html?_r=1] is a thoughtful article from the New York Times that lays out the orchestra’s troubled historical legacy in greater detail.
On a lighter note, I wanted to conclude the discussion on the Vienna Festival with a charming video. Here soprano Diana Damrau joins the conductor Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic for an encore in the closing concert of the festival. Who said the Viennese don’t have a sense of humour? I think this would have to be one of the wackiest moments I have seen at a concert in quite a while. I guess if you find yourself on stage but no singing is called for, you have to do something!