A Sea of Sound

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A Sea of Sound
Tallying New York’s philharmonic excess
By Joseph Smith
Is it just me or is it too loud in here? Often, when I attend symphonic concerts, I find myself disconcerted by the noisiness of the programming. It seems to me that concerts now tend to be too unrelievedly composed of works from periods that favor dense, complicated textures.
I decided to examine the 2011–2012 subscription repertoire of the New York Philharmonic in this respect, ignoring special concerts, chamber music, etc. I soon recognized, however, the impossibility of a meaningful comprehensive tabulation of works by period or style.
Some works are short, others long. One great composer might appear less often than another simply because he composed fewer symphonic works. And then there’s the problem of categorizing per se: the most obvious examples, Beethoven and Schubert, are they “classical” or “romantic”?
This season, the entire baroque period is represented by only four works from two composers: Bach and Handel, of course. But notice that Handel’s contribution is, guess what, The Messiah—guess when, in December! In other words, it serves as a holiday tradition rather than as a piece of music per se. Bach’s double violin concerto features the presence of music director Alan Gilbert as one of the soloists, presumably a factor in its selection.
What about the classical era? Mozart appears nine times, Haydn twice. This disparity seems extreme. I suspect that the reason, at least in part, is as follows: Mozart’s concertos are among his greatest works, whereas Haydn’s concertos are a minor part of his oeuvre.
Ten works by Beethoven are programmed, but six of these are segregated to David Zinman’s festival, “The Modern Beethoven.” This means that such symphonies as Numbers 1 and 4—comparatively light in texture and mood—cannot be programmed elsewhere in this Philharmonic season. The subscription season includes Schubert’s two most famous symphonies, as well as a few orchestrated songs.
Now for the earlier romantics, for instance, Mendelssohn and Schumann. But where are they? One overture by Schumann, nothing by Mendelssohn? I wondered if perhaps Schumann had been overrepresented in 2010–2011, since 2010 was his anniversary year.
Let’s move on to the late romantics and see how their presence compares with the earlier composers cited. I use “late romantic” in its most limited sense, that is, German and Austrian composers who took Wagner’s bigness and grandeur as a starting point. This season, works by Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner and Korngold total 12!
Numerically, Strauss beats Mahler by one, but all of Mahler’s works are exceptionally long symphonies. Am I deploring Mahler’s popularity? Hardly! I rejoice that such a challenging, boldly original voice has won a large, enthusiastic public. Within living memory, it was once common wisdom that Mahler was too complicated and idiosyncratic for American audiences.
As we see, in orchestral music, the taste for late romantic music is indeed marked. Interestingly, though, the lieder of Wolf and the masses of Bruckner are seldom performed in the United States, despite their undisputed importance.
The relative dearth of 18-century music is easily explained, of course. Symphony orchestras, it seems, have largely surrendered baroque and classical music to chamber orchestras and original instrument groups.
Arguably, this division of the repertoire may serve earlier music well. New York offers an enviable cornucopia of musical venues and series, and one can certainly enjoy such music apart from the Philharmonic. But a problem remains. When symphony orchestras relinquish this period, markedly favoring the later romantics over the earlier ones, and offer a generous amount of composers from the 20th and 21st centuries, it inevitably skews repertoire toward dense, plethoric and saturated textures.
Of course, being engulfed in a sea of sound is one of the great pleasures of orchestral music. But it would be sad if audiences become conditioned to hold this value paramount. Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony (April 12-17)? Three noisy blockbusters by Richard Strauss—Alpine Symphony, Horn Concerto No. 1, Till Eulenspiegel—one after another (Oct. 20-22)? By all means, let us have excess, but…in moderation!

This article first appeared in the March 7 edition of CityArts. For more, visit New York’s review of Culture at cityartsnyc.com.

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