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Bravos For Judd, Plus A Question for the Room
5 Mar 2011
Inside the Classics

I’m finally back home in Minneapolis after a whirlwind week in New York, and I must say, I’m extremely disappointed that you people didn’t manage to dispense with this whole “winter” thing while I was gone. I mean, honestly. The lead attendant on my Southwest flight from Chicago yesterday actually welcomed us to “sunny Florida” when we landed at MSP, before cackling darkly. Not funny.

Anyway. Judd’s concert on Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall was a thrilling thing to experience, and garnered a much-deserved rave in the New York Times. There’s also a great set of photos of the whole evening here, and Judd tells me that video of the whole performance will be available at some point. Hopefully, we’ll marry that up with the video I shot of the rehearsal process earlier in the week and get it up here on the blog before too long. Because seriously, you just wouldn’t believe the contortions these intrepid musicians go through to bring a production like this to life. For instance, this was their rehearsal space.

There were fourteen people in that tiny room in a Brooklyn warehouse, along with four percussion setups, about 8 keyboards, and at least five vocal mics. Not what you’d call ideal rehearsal conditions, but somehow it was good enough for The Yehudim, who all deserve serious congratulations for the performance they gave on Thursday.

On another note, I want to go back to something else that a critic wrote in the New York Times this week, and toss it back to y’all as a question. In the course of reviewing our Carnegie Hall performance, lead Times critic Anthony Tommasini made a particular point of questioning our orchestra’s commitment to new American music, asking why we never seem to bring anything contemporary to New York, and further charging that our programming at home in Minnesota seems “not particularly adventurous” for an orchestra that has frequently won awards for its commitment to new music.

And the thing is, he’s undeniably right about that, at least if you believe, as I do, that orchestras have a responsibility to seek out great new music and program it regularly. (Late caveat: As I’ve mentioned before, we’re not really in control of what our programs at Carnegie Hall consist of, since the venue pretty much calls the tune. So really, what Tommasini wants is for us to be asked to play new American music in New York. Still, let’s address his charge that we’re also unadventurous at home.) The awards we’ve won lately have been more about the success of our Composer Institute than any noticeable new music presence on our regular subscription concerts. Yes, we always mix in some Aho once a season or so, and James MacMillan pops up semi-frequently, as do Stephen Paulus and Aaron Jay Kernis. But compared to our programming a decade ago, when I joined the orchestra, we just don’t play much music that our audiences haven’t heard before, and we’ve pretty much cut the thorny mid-20th century stuff right out of our repertoire.

On the other hand, as our marketing staff would undoubtedly point out, we were often playing to half-empty houses when I joined the orchestra, and there were regular new-music-heavy weeks in which the attendance was downright embarrassing. (I distinctly remember a Thanksgiving week when Oliver Knussen, a delightful gentleman and fascinating composer, led a concert of obscure Stravinsky and his own work, before an audience that appeared smaller than the forces gathered on stage.) So is that sort of self-defeating approach really preferable to what we do now, which is to program the occasional newer work on subscription but market the program as being about something else, and then promote the heck out of asymmetrical new music projects like the Institute and the Microcommission? (Speaking of which, made a donation yet?)

I’d love to believe that there’s a way, in a mid-sized American city with a demonstrated commitment to the arts, to make adventurous programming the norm without our ticket sales numbers falling off a cliff. But I’ll admit, I just don’t have any idea how we get there. (And don’t give me that line about needing to “condition” audiences to be used to listening to new music. That sounds nice, but it’s been tried, and a large chunk of the traditional orchestral audience instead just opts out until you go back to playing Beethoven.)

Watching Judd and Co. strutting their stuff in New York made me long for the days when I got to do stuff like that on a regular basis, and I badly want to believe there’s a place for real experimentation in my line of work. So I’m asking you, the people who (presumably) buy tickets to Minnesota Orchestra concerts: what do we have to do to get you excited about new music? Are you someone who shies away from programs featuring composers you haven’t heard of or don’t know well? And if so, what could we do to raise your comfort level and get you to trust us not to program stuff you’ll hate? Or (and if this is the case, please do say so) are you just at a place where you come to Orchestra Hall for comfort food, and look elsewhere when you want edgy and new? The comments section awaits your analysis…

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