Thursday, November 11, 2010

Small rant about recital programs these days

When I was in school, I enjoyed choosing recital programs. It was like coming up with good double features. I would think about key connections (pairing a major key with its parallel or relative minor), forms (e.g., playing two pieces with fugues), and contrasting styles (something detailed and classical paired with something lush and romantic; something lush and romantic paired with something angular and modern). The trend these days, though, seems tending toward programming entire recitals of one or two composers, with no composers who lived after 1900, and nothing too challenging or "out there."

Over the past year or so, my husband and I have been treating ourselves to piano recitals by some big names in the piano world. We've heard, among others, András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel (his last concert in the United States), and last night, Emanuel Ax. These are people with the stature to play anything they want, yet many of them are presenting the same thing over and over again. This year, we've been treated to multiple concerts featuring the same pieces by Schumann and Chopin (in honor of their 250th birthdays). In a previous season, no less than three pianists played the same Beethoven sonata.

Some of this probably is because the presenters don't want to take chances with programming. I believe (and someone correct me if I'm wrong) that the performers offer lists of works that they are playing in a particular season, and the presenters choose one from column A, one from column B, and so on. They end up choosing what they think are the safe crowd pleasers. I do understand that they need to think about ticket sales, and let's face it, most of the people who shell out money to go to concerts are not edgy hipsters and musicologists but older people with disposable income and conservative tastes. At every one of the concerts we've attended in these piano series, most of the audience looked to be retirement age and up. But here's something to think about about: maybe they would get BIGGER audiences with more interesting programs. They sure weren't sold out last night. A sure sign of a small audience: they didn't open the coffee bar in the Grand Tier at intermission.

It's not that there's anything wrong with any of the music we've heard; it's just that I have always felt a recital should be more than the sum of its parts. Pieces played in proximity to each other can highlight qualities that are not apparent when they are played in isolation. Where is the creativity when a program is simply a selection of works from one composer? You might as well go out and buy a CD by that performer of the complete works (which in fact is usually for sale at intermission). And when a number of concerts are presented as a series, that is another opportunity for imagination in programming, with each concert being part of a whole.

As for last night's concert, my impression was that it was professional and workmanlike but rote and somewhat boring, and the programming was a big part of the problem. The first half was Schubert: the four impromptus from Op. 142 and the sonata in A major, Op. 120. The second half was Chopin: the Barcarolle, the four Op. 59 mazurkas, the two nocturnes from Op. 27, and the B flat scherzo.

The Schubert especially didn't work well in that big hall; the sonata is a simple one and seemed more suited to a student recital than to a concert like this one, and the impromptus, though certainly not easy, are for the most part also simple in form and content. All that simplicity and repetitiveness in one 40-minute-or-so block of time, however cleanly performed, was too much. The Chopin pieces worked much better as a group; Chopin was a more inventive composer altogether, in my opinion (particularly in terms of pianism), and his music is just easier to bring off in a performance. However, by the time the second half rolled around, the performer seemed fatigued and the audience restless.

For encores, Ax played Schumann (I think it was a movement from Waldszenen, not sure -- I know Schiff played it last month) and Chopin (the "grand waltz" No. 1, I believe). Overall, it was interesting to finally see and hear him in a live performance, but it wasn't enlightening in any other respects.

There really is a benefit to hearing live music, but I wish the people who design these concert series would be more imaginative. Creative programming doesn't have to be ugly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think your comment above "At every one of the concerts we've attended in these piano series, most of the audience looked to be retirement age and up." pretty much sums it up. There aren't a whole lot of people who listen to classical music anymore. I don't know anyone under 60 who listens to it at all and the one that do usually listen as background music (my mom and dad, both 86, listen to classical music on a timer when they go to bed at night).

You may have seen the article in the Washington Post recently that offered this interesting tidbit "The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless. Sales of 200 or 300 units are enough to land an album in the top 10."

Perhaps you should record an album of your cello and piano playing and market it to the folks on Pianoworld - You would probably have a Top 10 Hit!!