Get With the Program

Once again, marathon training and travel have been preventing me from attending the number of classical music concerts I’d like to. This month and the next, if I’m in town, it’ll take something special to get me to go out for a show. But since I can write a blog entry about why the National Symphony Orchestra’s first three programs this season make no sense and still be in bed by 9, I’m going to do that now.

Here are said programs. Note that the “season opening ball concert” does not count because I shrink from anything characterized as a “gala event.” Plus, if it’s a ball, where’s the dancing? (Edit: A commenter points out that there was a ball after the concert at which people danced. I feel kind of dense for not realizing that.) Anyway:

Sept. 29–Oct. 1
Beethoven: Symphony no. 8
Orff: Carmina Burana

Oct. 6–9
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Sibelius: Violin concerto
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Oct. 27-29
Berlioz: Overture to “Benvenuto Cellini”
Grieg: Piano concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

In the first program, I guess you could be drawing a parallel between the relative rhythmic rumbustiousness of Beeth 8 and the bursting-out-all-over-ness of Carmina, except…I can’t really endorse that. Carmina is a meal in itself, and Beeth 8 makes a curious appetizer.

Carl Orff asking "Why is this Beethoven symphony, great as it is, sitting like a big awkward lump before my Carmina on that program?"

What inspired this blog post were the second and third programs, which obviously got scrambled up somewhere in the development process. Each features Russian nationalist music and a big Scandinavian work or works. The juxtaposition of Sibelius/Nielsen and Mussorgsky/Liadov in the first program isn’t telling any obvious story, though, and neither is Grieg vs. Mussorgsky in the second program. If you just switch some stuff around and add a couple standard-rep works, though, you get:

Program 1
[add Sibelius: Suite from “Karelia”]
Grieg: Piano concerto
Nielsen: Symphony no. 5

Program 2
Mussorgsky: “Night on Bald Mountain”
Liadov: “The Enchanted Lake”
[add Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture]
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

The Sibelius violin concerto and the Berlioz got dropped, the former because it is not exactly underheard around here, the latter because it didn’t fit.

Now you have two programs with distinct identities, i.e., the Scandinavian one and the Russian one. The composers hail from a common(ish) heritage yet use their inheritance and materials differently. The works are talking to each other along an easy-to-spot axis, and attendees can usefully compare and contrast throughout.

In addition, you may have noticed that the last day of the Oct. 27-29 program is the Saturday before Halloween. Hmmm, what sort of promo effort could you get together for a program with “Night on Bald Mountain” and some other vaguely enchanted music at that time of year? Since you’re not paying a soloist, maybe the orchestra could surprise the audience with a semi-mandatory encore of Saint-Saens’ “Danse macabre”? Cheesy, sure, but I’d enjoy it. More to the point, it would be easy to enjoy. The existing NSO programs, on the other hand, offer no obvious story or argument and thus no reason to attend the concerts, unless you like one or another of the performers. (I suppose I could make an exception from Sibelius violin concerto fatigue for Gidon Kremer in the first program, if I wasn’t going to be out of town.) They may end up being arresting concerts, but they’re not really commending themselves to the casual observer.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Symphony has one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Grant recipients playing Dvorak’s cello concerto at Strathmore on Saturday. I am going to bestir myself to attend that one.

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3 Comments on “Get With the Program”

  1. Evb Says:

    All well and good, Andrew, but what happens if the powers-that-be want a soloist on each concert? And what happens if the conductor for the Grieg Piano Concerto concert insists on doing Mussorgsky, despite the administration’s best efforts to convince him/her that Nielsen makes a much better program? And what happens if the soloist for the Grieg Piano Concerto and the conductor who wants the Nielsen have other engagements and can’t both be in DC the same weekend?

    Now I have no idea if any of this is true, but there’s a lot more that goes into programming concerts than just what looks good on paper.

  2. Sue Says:

    there was dancing at the post-concert ball.


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