Wednesday, July 2, 2008

So Many Concerts; So Little Coverage!

Monday's blog post about that recent performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie by the Redwood Symphony, from which I tried to extract a lesson in acquiring knowledge of the musical world apparently disturbed a hornets' nest; and I was so occupied with the provoked hornets that I did not have time to write yesterday! Now that I have made a few revisions to the post to anonymize the circumstances and my stings are beginning to heal, I feel as if the main thing I learned is the extent to which acquiring that knowledge is impeded when there is only one source of information. If I truly believe, as I wrote, that "much (if not most) of what we know emerges from our 'conversations' with others" (either face-to-face or through what we read and our capacity to reply and/or comment, now facilitated by the Internet), what happens if there are not enough individuals to make for a beneficial conversation? Every now and then there will be an event for which I read multiple accounts (I shall not waltz around nouns like "review" or "criticism"); but they are vastly outweighed by those events for which I never read an account. If, as I keep arguing, it is the case that we go to concerts in order to learn how to listen, then there is a painful shortage of opportunities for conversations over our listening experiences.

While I have come to write this in the wake of a concert in the San Francisco Bay Area, my guess is that this is a pretty common problem in the United States, if not in many countries around the world. London seems to be one of the few cities where I have been able to read multiple accounts of events; but, if you take into account the number of events that show up in the calendar listings, even there the coverage barely scratches the surface. I suppose this is ultimately one of those cases where I really wish there was more to "long tail" thinking than the hard data appear to endorse. There are any number of performances of music out there on the long tail in terms of attendance figures. The irony is that many of them can be really useful for those learning how to listen and could make for extremely rich conversations about listening experiences. However, the newspapers do not have room to cover such events; and, whether or not they own up to living in an echo chamber, the bloggers tend to focus on the same events that the newspapers cover (perhaps because the newspapers cover them). To be fair San Francisco Classical Voice ran a review of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music production of Francesco Cavalli's L'Egisto; but this provoked a controversial exchange of comments (which seems to have been removed from the archives) over whether student performers should be reviewed (or, for that matter, named). (I have written about this problem myself. My position is that there is plenty to write about concerning the music and even the matter of performing that music without putting students under pressure by naming their names. I also have my own problem with San Francisco Classical Voice, which is that, all too often, I find myself reading something "by some great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts," as Anna Russell put it. Such writing seldom furthers any conversation about listening experiences!) Meanwhile, as I hope some of my own posts have indicated, the Bay Area offers a plethora of opportunities for listening to chamber music (not to mention the free Master Classes at the Conservatory, which are an excellent approach to learning to listen); yet coverage seems to be restricted to a limited set of "prime" events in an even more limited number of venues.

There are those who seem to believe that getting coverage is primarily the responsibility of the performer. I am sure there are any number of Gilbert and Sullivan fans happy to endorse the "stir it and stump it,/And blow your own trumpet" philosophy; but is that not asking a bit much of a performer who is probably putting no end of waking hours into making sure that the performance has high enough quality to be so "stumped?" Established professionals can often outsource this task to an agent; but those trying to establish themselves, so to speak, are rarely so lucky. I suppose this is one reason that so many performers throw all of their effort behind winning competitions, since competition awards tend to provide a "fast track" to establishment; however, as I continue to observe, that track does not always lead to occasions for better listening experiences.

Sadly, the bottom line appears to be that the interests of good listening experiences and the interests of professional musicians are at frustrating cross-purposes. My guess is that Igor Stravinsky could not have anticipated such a situation when he enjoined us all to be better listeners. After all, he was in a highly reputable (not to mention pretty comfortable) situation when he issued that injunction all those decades ago. It is not worth arguing over whether the situation for performers is better now than it was when Stravinsky put that stake in the ground; but my guess is that the "great man" did not give much thought to the implications of what he said for anyone other than himself! As result, he has laid a rather massive burden on not only the performers but also all of us who are so committed to keeping our conversations about music going!

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