Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Glitter and Be Popular

Terry Teachout has a thoughtful piece in Commentary (which, outside of his essays would be a complete oxymoron) on the recent appointment by the New York Philharmonic of Alan Gilbert as music director a largely unknown (even to those who follow these things) 40-year old conductor.

I agree with most who have written on this; this is an excellent development , certainly preferable to the retread septuagenarians who have led the NY Phil in recent decades, ardent youth over crabbed age, and more power to the Philharmonic for making an innovative choice. But as Teachout points out, in comparison to the last American-born conductor the Philharmonic appointed, Leonard Bernstein in 1957, Gilbert has been, heretofore utterly lacking in the celebrity, charisma, and name recognition that Bernstein already enjoyed in 1957, and it is difficult to see how Gilbert will obtain it.

In his first review as music critic for the Herald Tribune in 1940 Virgil Thomson offered the famous put-down “the New York Philharmonic is not a part of New York’s intellectual life” and I suppose this has been more true than not ever since, and is true for almost all symphony orchestras, forced to play, over and over again, a basic staple of 25 or so works, with the occasional concession to the cognoscenti. The real problem is that the New York Philharmonic is no longer really a part of the cultural life of the city. And perhaps, the Philharmonic is not a part of the civic life of the city, either.

High culture can perhaps be defined as culture that doesn’t pay for itself, and this has always been the fate of symphony orchestras. The New York Philharmonic has always had the additional problem that it is in the only city in North America where it does not occupy the pinnacle of the classical music hierarchy (which in New York City is occupied by the Metropolitan Opera.)

A comparison to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is instructive. The RPO has the same middle-brow repertoire and aging patronage as the NYPO. But in terms of premier musical organizations, it is the only game in town, and it occupies an important role in the civic life of the city and the area , and its boosters keep it healthy. Civic pride, as much as any other factor, has played a key role in the promotion of live classical music in the United States. Can the NYPO continue to play this role in NYC, with such a wide choice of cultural options as New York City affords? Like Teachout I am skeptical. But lets hope Gilbert can get the job done.

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