To clap or not clap; Alex Ross looks at the concert-going experience

A lot of the buzz this week in classical music circles will be about a lecture Alex Ross gave Monday in London for the nearly 200-year-old Royal Philharmonic Society, an organization dedicated “to create a future for music through the encouragement of creativity, the recognition of excellence and the promotion of understanding.” An edited version also appeared under his byline in the Guardian.
Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and author of the widely praised book “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” is not the first to question whether classical music is its own worst enemy, in terms of making the concert-going experience so stuffy, ritualistic and even prohibitive. But, naturally, he has expressed his views with more flair and insight than most. His primary focus, and the one that got online commenters and Twitterers going, was the oppressive no-applause-between-movements rule.

To quote Ross: “The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence, “Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.” Should we be surprised that people aren’t quite as excited about classical music as they used to be? To be sure, the question of concert etiquette is only part, and perhaps a rather small part, of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself—as a largely acoustic art in an electronic culture, as a mainly long-form art in a short-attention-span age … Nevertheless, I do wonder about it, as I wonder about other tics of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-center lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of the average professional musician, especially in America.”

Read the full article in the Baltimore Sun here.

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Alex Ross on Meredith Monk; John Adams

This week, two proud mavericks of American music—Meredith Monk and John Luther Adams—will edge a little more into the mainstream. Monk, whom I wrote about last fall, is at the St. Louis Symphony, presiding over the première of a yet-to-be-titled work for singers and orchestra. In recent years, Monk, whose work has long defied categorization, has been identifying more strongly with the classical world, although her methods remain unorthodox, as she recounts in an interview with Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Monk has had difficulty deciding on a title, and David Robertson will announce her final choice from the stage. And in a concert tonight at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Monk will sing several of her shorter pieces on program that also includes Steve Reich’s “Violin Phase,” John Cage’s “Litany for the Whale,” and Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes” (presently resounding through several thousand American movie theaters as part of the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”).

As for Adams, his wide-open Alaskan soundscapes are about to descend on the urban jungles of New York and Chicago. On Sunday night, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble plays “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” and “The Farthest Place,” at (Le) Poisson Rouge, alongside works of Kevin Volans; on Monday night, the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series presents “Qilyaun,” “for Jim (rising),” and “…and bells remembered…,” alongside works of Osvaldo Golijov. Adams will receive even higher-profile performances next October, when the American Composers Orchestra essays “The Light Within,” at Carnegie Hall, and the Chicago Symphony unleashes his beautifully forbidding orchestral piece “Dark Waves,” with Jaap van Zweden conducting. You can hear a recording of the world premiere of “Dark Waves” at the tail end of my 2008 Profile of Adams.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/alexross/?xrail#ixzz0iF8agmSh

How one should behave at a classical music concert

The great debate of our times – about how one should behave at a classical music concert – had a special resonance for me this week. A couple of days before Alex Ross gave his lecture in London on how protocol might curb an audience’s enthusiasm, I went to a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, the stunning young Russian conductor. The programme was varied and sophisticated: three pieces of music written within five years in the Thirties. The Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, one of the greatest works in that genre, was framed by two pieces by Shostakovich; his Five Fragments, with which I was not familiar, and his Fourth Symphony, with which I was.

Shostakovich spent much of his life looking in his wing mirrors, and rarely more so than in the mid-Thirties, when Pravda denounced him on the orders of Stalin. Stalin fancied he knew a thing or two about music (like Hitler, who actually did), and Shostakovich was not rash enough to disabuse him of this notion. The Fourth Symphony has ravishing moments in it, but other passages sound as though they are crying out to be piped over the PA system of a tractor factory in Sverdlovsk. I don’t think the poor old boy quite knew what he was doing at the time, and the work suffers in part from a structural incoherence. But it was played flawlessly, and the orchestra and conductor deserved the ovation they received at the end. Between the three movements, purists will be glad to hear, we sat sedately and silently.

Yet it was the performance of the Ravel concerto that now brings Mr Ross’s words to mind. It is one of my dozen or so favourite pieces of music. I could bore on about it for pages, but suffice it to say if you don’t know it, go out and listen to it. It requires an Olympic-class soloist to deal with it even half adequately and a genius to play it well. Ravel wrote it after visiting America for the first time, in 1928, and meeting Gershwin, whose work he admired and which became an enormous influence on him in this concerto and its sister, the Concerto for the Left Hand. Jazz is everywhere in the first and third movements: it seems when Americans hear the work they feel it is one of their own, and with some cause. The middle movement could not be more different. It is like a dreamscape of slightly sad but beautiful tunes that need to be played with the utmost delicacy.

Read the full article in The Telegraph here.