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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/22/2004 -  
Francis Poulenc: Litanies a la vierge noire
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms
Gabriel Faure: Requiem

Janice Chandler-Eteme (soprano)
Nathan Berg (baritone)
Carnegie Hall Workshop Chorus
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Charles Dutoit (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Twelve

Menschen am Sonntag

“All the things you fight for and dream about, in the
final analysis, it's what actually happens on the stage
that counts…I'm trying to keep from being too emotional,
not to bubble over, but this is a consecrated house. It's
not consecrated because we say so but because of the
musicians who play there.”

Isaac Stern St. Petersburg (Florida) Times
May 13, 1991

“ Like parts of a laboratory specimen, the remains of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra were sliced up, divided and auctioned off Thursday to a crowd of about 125 bidders. Representatives from
local musical organizations, schools and orchestra and opera
companies across the country were on hand to find a bargain on everything from instruments and music scores to filing cabinets
and an oil painting of James Judd.”

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 23, 2004

“…in the dying world I come from quotation is a natural vice.
It used to be the classics, now it’s lyric verse.”

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One, 1948

Imagine, if you will, that we all awakened this glorious morning and found that twenty or thirty splendid auditoria had been built overnight and were now dedicated to the dissemination and propagation of ancient Greek poetry. These halls, strategically positioned about the country, offered the greatest declaimers of our generation in high level recitations of Homer and Aeschylus in the original language as well as talented newcomers vying for the laurel wreaths of oration. Further, these events would not be inexpensive: in New York, ticket prices would range from 50 to 150 dollars. Would anyone be surprised if attendance were minimal at best? And yet, this is not far from the state of classical music in America today. What was once a standard part of the curriculum for a reasonably well-educated person has vanished from the public school and the state university to be replaced, if at all, by trashy regurgitations of pop culture. Without active audience-building, institutions like Carnegie Hall over time will, with Darwinian exactitude, simply wither and die.

The Sunday afternoon concert did indeed focus on education: the annual choral workshop for teachers and students established by Robert Shaw. The culmination of a first-rate week of immersion in their chosen field, there is no doubt that the participants (and the audience) are much the richer for the experience. However, this is preaching to the choir (sorry, some punning opportunities are just too enticing to forgo) as everyone on that stage is already enamored of and committed to the furtherance of the highest principles of singing. Carnegie Hall has several such symposia for instrumental aspirants as well, and this is a good thing, maybe even a great thing, for nurturing the performers of the future, but does little for developing their constituency. There are some bright spots in community outreach today, notably in St. Louis and San Francisco, but so much more needs to be done.

Enter Leonard Bernstein. In November 1954 the young conductor appeared on the program Omnibus standing on a gigantic score of the Symphony #5 of Beethoven and began by pointing to the opening four notes with his shoe. As he explained the creative process and Beethoven's struggles, Bernstein illustrated his talk at the piano and by having members of the Symphony of the Air play passages while seated at their particular line on the huge score with the camera shooting from high in the studio rafters. CBS was impressed and booked this born communicator and his New York Philharmonic to present a series of Young People's Concerts from Carnegie Hall. The series was so successful that it remained on the air until 1973 and had a great influence on the musical education of the baby boomer generation (and their parents). Bernstein discussed sophisticated topics (What is Classical Music? What Does Music Mean? What is Rhythm?) and discovered that by not talking down to his youthful audience he could introduce complex concepts and difficult works that would be immediately intelligible. He presented a lecture on Mahler which included a performance of the last movement of the Symphony #4 (an almost unknown work at the time) and was shown beaming as his children sat in rapt attention listening to the song Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) which is its text. Viewing kinescopes of these landmark concerts today, the listener is struck by the easy sophistication of Bernstein and particularly by his unique ability to communicate his unbounded and infectious love for his subject.

To its credit, Carnegie does do a lot with children, and plans to do quite a bit more with seed money from its chairman for an interactive, computer-based initiative, but perhaps now is the time to adapt this type of programming to a more adult audience. All of this takes money, of course, but if the hall’s leadership truly applied itself and leveraged its international image (rather than expending so much energy trying to “contemporize” it), there is no limit to the largesse that it could enjoy. According to Crain’s New York Business, the fourth largest nonprofit organization in terms of funds raised in the tri-state area in fiscal 2003 was the Metropolitan Opera, which brought in a whopping 190 million dollars from its benefactors. With only a golden apple or two from this horde, Carnegie could redouble its outreach efforts in decidedly hip, but not compromisingly condescending ways and herewith I propose the creation of a “Robert Harth Memorial Fund” to make it happen.

The website of the San Francisco Symphony, for example, has a marvelous section entitled “How to Prepare” which includes the following “five most common misconceptions”:

1. Everyone wears tuxedos or evening gowns.
2. You should clap after every movement of a piece, even that one piece they always play at the beginning where a violinist stands up and everyone plays the same note.
3. Classical music isn't meant to be enjoyed – it's meant to be appreciated.
4. It’s good to leave your cell phone or your pager on during a performance – especially if you answer the phone and carry on a complete conversation.
5. Coughing adds to the music – it's like a new percussion instrument.
Allow us to clear some things up. You're still new at this, and we want your first experience with the San Francisco Symphony to be faux pas-free. So, we've put together some tips for the first-time concertgoer.

It seems that Davies Hall, without cheapening its product, is quite a bit more inviting to a naïf than Carnegie might be (now if only the orchestra there sounded a bit more professional).

As the annual choral workshop is one of this reviewer’s favorite events, I have heard quite a few of them over the years. What always amazes me is how big and integrated a sound emanates from a convocation of singers who, just one week ago, did not even know each other. The Poulenc, a piece with which I am not familiar, was so amazingly beautiful that we could have all gone home after the first seven minutes of this concert and felt both edified and transformed. Written in response to the death of a friend (for better or worse, a common inspiration for this undervalued composer), the work is decidedly modern in harmonic language but surrounded by an angelic nimbus. The Stravinsky is a very difficult piece for a chorus to learn in but a week and this group captured it brilliantly. Also of note was the fine playing of the St. Luke’s wind section, who had to carry the bulk of the melodic underpinnings (the score calls for no strings above the celli), and the cimbalom-like effects produced by harpist Sara Cutler.

Of course, the Faure is one of the greatest works in the entire choral literature and Maestro Dutoit shaped this ecstatic pursuit of the triune gorgeously. This fine conductor is now “the man without an orchestra” and can certainly ascend to the throne of one of many fine ensembles (Chicago?) in the near future, but, for now, he has become a Leinsdorf clone, distinguishing himself as a guest leader par excellence, a role he plays to perfection in both New York and Philadelphia. Many readers may be surprised to learn that Carnegie has no organ, relying instead on electronic surrogates with laughably deficient sonorities. Certainly today’s instrument, with its wan pedal points, brought down this performance several notches, although perhaps many of the singers felt more at home with a reverberation reminiscent of their own high school venues. The soloists were compelling, Nathan Berg more stylistically correct than soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, who sounded a bit like an escapee from a more operatic religious work, say the Stabat Mater of Rossini, but who could argue with such a sensuous voice? Fittingly, the real stars of the day were the chorus and they received by far the warmest adulation from the crowd (although, to be fair, many of the audience members are friends and relatives).

Whatever its musical shortcomings, the New York Philharmonic is a marvel of corporate efficiency. While other venues struggle, the Phil sells virtually all of its seats, even with the huge challenge of presenting the same program four times in quick succession. One of their many successful marketing ideas is a young professionals “mixer” night, where the dating crowd can combine some musical and some social interaction, the entire evening having a more celebratory, cocktail party feel. One idea for Carnegie might be to combine this type of soiree with a less intimidating, educative orchestral experience geared toward unattached adults. Not a night of Peter and the Wolf or Young Person’s Guide, but rather an opportunity for some good communicator to illustrate some basic orchestral principles and demonstrate some individual instrumental sounds and then conduct an uncompromisingly great work from the symphonic repertoire. Pierre Boulez will be doing just that next season with the London Symphony one evening at Carnegie. It will be very interesting to see how the hall staff markets this particular event, and, in a laudable first step, has already reduced the ticket prices. After all, isn’t Mozart supposed to make you smarter?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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