Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Quality is job one

So the Declassified show at the National Symphony a week ago didn't strike me as a success.

Declassified, as I said in my last post, is a series that the orchestra and its parent institution, the Kennedy Center, created to reach the fabled new young audience. Younger people certainly showed up on Friday, to hear Ben Folds, who was playing a piano concerto he's written.

But as I said in my post, they weren't a new NSO/KenCen crowd. They were Ben Folds fans, coming to see their favorite, with no reason, left to themselves, ever to come back again. See my last post — this is what people in the pop audience do. They come to see the artists they love.

In more detail

I should say that the Ben Folds show was part of a three-event weekend, and that the other two evenings didn't have Ben Folds. They featured only the orchestra, playing what was meant as young-friendly music. Maybe the people who came were attracted by that, or by the Declassified series itself — it offers events of various kinds — and might return.

But maybe they won't, because much of the same music was also on the Ben Folds program, and it wasn't altogether Well-chosen, I thought. Certainly it was weakly played. Why would anyone, hearing that performance, rush to come back?

These were the problems

Here was the orchestra music on the program, all of it meant to fit a dance music theme: "The Chairman Dances," by John Adams; "Mothership", by Mason Bates; and Paul Creston's "Dance Overture.". The Adams, of course, is an irresistible piece, with a nice beat. Mason's work takes symphonic music into the world of dance clubs, and feels authentic on both sides of what no longer has to be a divide.

But the "Dance Overture" was a mystery. Or the reasons for playing it were. You can't call it an NSO staple; they'd never played it before, even though Creston mostly flourished in 1940s and '50s. He's not part of any current conversation, and the piece itself made no impression, or at least not on me. Why put it on this program? I just don't get it.

Just beating time

Or could it have triumphed in a better performance? This brings me to the biggest problem, the night I was there. Which I'd think would also have been a problem the other two nights, when in place of the Ben Folds concerto the program ended with Copland's Billy the Kid" (and also included Samuel Barber's "Toccata Festiva" and improvisations by the fun and fearless organist Cameron Carpenter0.

quality blogThe problem was the performance, undermined by the conductor, Sarah Hicks, whom my wife, in her Washington Post review, didn't speak well of.

I agree, and Hicks, to me, was  a conundrum. Or maybe just an example of a tendency, in orchestras these days, to favor conductors who speak well to an audience. Hicks has a busy career, and she speaks delightfully, coming off as friendly, funny, and kind of hip.

But when she conducted, all she really did was beat time. She did it at least without dragging. And in one place (I'd assume there were more like it) I saw her crisply sketch for the players the shape of a tricky rhythmic moment.

But she conducted everything the same way, with the same gestures, no matter what the music was supposed to feel like. Plus she beat time with both hands together, instead of doing what you learn in Conducting 191, which is to beat time with just one hand, so you have the other free to shape flow, feel, and subtleties.

Which meant that the music didn't have much flow, feel, or color. "The Chairman Dances" didn't dance. Throughout the program, orchestral lines that should have pointed somewhere didn't have shape enough to do that.

So the whole thing was blah. And not tidy enough. Early in the Adams piece, a sharply rhythmic line for a xylophone (standing naked, exposed against the rest of the orchestra) fell off the beat, got out of sync with everybody else.

I'd have expected a conductor here to turn toward the player, and ease him or here back into alignment. Conducting 202, maybe, though still pretty basic. But Hicks just went on beating time, as if nothing was wrong, and the xylophone stayed out of sync.

We have to do better

If you want to hold a new audience that you've attracted, you have to do better than this. You have to keep artistic standards high. Even higher, maybe, than you need to have them for your main symphonic concerts!

Because your normal audience — devoted, loyal, and evidently accepting, since they keep coming back — will forgive an off-night. But your new audience won't know they're hearing one.

It may not know that something's wrong, having (through no fault of its own) no standards of comparison for what it's hearing. It may well be impressed, as who wouldn't be, by the sheer sound of a live symphonic orchestra. May well say, "Hey, that was nice."

But it won't be excited, won't be thinking, "Wow, that was fabulous. I've got to come back!" Stephen Reinecke, the NSO's pops conductor, would have done a much better job, from what I've seen of him. And he talks well, too.

About the concerto

Ben Folds is a pianist it's hard to resist. Jumps right in, playing music, pointing, shaping, dancing, all but singing. Great to hear.

The piece didn't quite measure up. It was in three movements, fast, slow, fast, just like traditional concerti. The first two movements I thought meandered. The third was a gem, lean, focused, fun, with a perfect ending, unepectedly quiet.

Or, anyway, a perfect ending for that movement. Maybe not for the concerto as a whole — seemed like the piece needed something bigger. An "OK, we're home" moment, rather than just, "Hey, wow, neat."

Which brings up the tricky question of mentoring. What kind of work should a pop musician do, before setting out to write a big classical piece? I don't want to be patronizing, and there are many musical things no one needs to teach Ben Folds, and that he in fact could teach more than a few classical composers. Things about appeal and personality. And about making a piece really yours, without any extra baggage of presumed complexity.

But on the other hand, there are special skills in writing a big three-movement piece. Skills about what goes where, what leads to what, what at any moment is going to come next, and what the weight of any passage is against the whole.

These things can be learned in at least two ways: By writing smaller classical pieces (meaning pieces without words, structured onlyl by the music itself). And by close study of the classical repertoire.

Of course you can work on all this by yourself, but a mentor could be helpful. How would a classical composer feel, trying (let's say) tp produce a recording in pop-music style? Using the studio itself as an instrument. No blame to any classical composer who wouldn't know how to do that, who'd want to get some training and some help.

So maybe Folds could have used some classical mentoring. Not to make him different. But to make him better at being himself.

The concerto, it's true, has been performed several times, and has been recorded (I haven't heard the recording). So if Folds wants to say, "That's OK, Greg — the piece lives!" I could hardly blame him.

I did notice that the audience — his fans — clapped and cheered less after the concerto than it did when he came on stage. But there could be many reasons for that, starting maybe with them feeling that, no matter how fabulous the concerto might have been, they'd rather hear his songs.

But one thing I'll repeat, not about the concerto, but about the concert as a whole:

If you want to draw a new audience, you've got to keep quality high.

Original Content: Quality is job one

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