Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Climate change

In a recent post on her blog, The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette uses the red state/blue state political divide as an analogy for the traditional/modern-contemporary divide in art-music:

Fair enough, I guess. We’ve become accustomed to the politicization of everything (one’s choice of big-box discount stores, action-movie plot lines, celebrities’ love lives); and, of course, many (most?) Washingtonians are inclined to view all subjects through the prism of politics.

A better analogy in this case, though, might be climate. Performers and their audiences inhabit the same planet – the music known as "classical" and its vehicles for performance (orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles, choirs, etc.) – but they inhabit different climate zones. Those acclimated to Tchaikovsky might melt should they be transported suddenly to Varèse, or freeze if transported suddenly to Monteverdi. The musical traveler might feel discomfort even within the same zone – Bach with vibrato vs. Bach with straight tone, for instance.

Consider last November’s Masterworks concerts of the Richmond Symphony, whose audiences heard Bright Sheng’s "Nanking! Nanking!" alongside César Franck’s Symphony in D minor – the former, a contemporary score full of dissonance and violent expressiveness, whose themes are drawn from a non-Western (Chinese) musical tradition and whose protagonist is an exotic instrument, the pipa (Chinese lute); the latter, a 19th-century score that’s traditionally orchestrated, with hummable tunes, easily grasped musical gestures and few if any rough edges of instrumentation or expression. All that these compositions have in common is that they were written for a symphony orchestra, and that both can be perceived as ominous in mood. It’s hard to imagine that many listeners fully appreciated, or got into the spirit of, both works.

Suppose the Franck symphony had been played alongside a piece of comparable mood and not wildly dissimilar orchestration, harmonic language and emotional tone – Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, say – but that the Mozart had been played on 18th-century-style instruments, adhering to historically informed performance practices and with the pitch lowered by a quarter-tone. Would listeners have fully absorbed and appreciated both performances? I suspect discomfort would have kicked in, though not as radically.

What if "Nanking! Nanking!" had been played alongside a Western piece of comparable turbulence in which lute or some other bright plucked-string tone figured prominently? Some "battle" music from the late-17th or early 18th centuries, say, or Bartók’s "Miraculous Mandarin," which is couched in the semi-Asian dialects of Hungarian and other Balkan musics and sounds "Chinese" in ways that other European chinoiserie does not? Less discomfort, I’m guessing, or maybe more consistent discomfort.

So, unless you’re attending an all-somebody program (and the composer’s musical language did not evolve significantly over time – e.g., Schubert, not Beethoven), acclimation will be required. It helps if the performers prepare listeners for changes in musical climate through verbal introductions or demonstrations, and helps even more if they give compelling performances. Ultimately, though, acclimation is a product of ear and attitude adjustment on the listener’s part.

Like other travelers, the listener should pack carefully for the trip and check the weather forecast.