Friday, May 8, 2009

Dis-Grace-ful Chutzpah

This morning I found myself writing in as negative a tone as I have ever used on in reviewing last night's Handel Fireworks Celebration at Grace Cathedral, the final program in the current season of the American Bach Soloists. I tried to make it clear that I found no dissatisfaction with any of the performers in the American Bach Soloists, and anyone who reads me regularly knows that I am hardly one to find dissatisfaction with the music of George Frideric Handel. No, the target of my nattering negativity (as Spiro Agnew would have put it), was Grace Cathedral itself and the extent to which its physical setting undermined one's efforts to listen (in Igor Stravinsky's sense of the word, as distinguished from mere physiological hearing) to the wonderful Handel music that had been compiled for the evening's program. Checking my archives, I realized that the last time I had been so concerned that the very nature of listening to music was being threatened was when the London Telegraph ran a story about research indicating that digital music could well be detrimental to our capacities for such listening.

How is it, then, that an ensemble as capable as the American Bach Soloists could find themselves in such a listener-hostile setting (and, according to the program, will be returning to that setting for a performance of Messiah next season)? Given how seriously the performers seem to take their work, my guess is that this venue was selected by one or more managers or promoters, under the assumption that the prospect of hearing (word chosen to reflect Stravinsky's distinction) music in Grace Cathedral will attract (and, for that matter, can hold) a larger audience than would a more modest sanctuary or a more secular venue. This may well be the case. We have all had experiences with audiences more interesting in making a display of their approval (or disapproval) than in actually listening to the target of that display. (I sometimes think that the entire history of grand opera could be written around the sociology of such audiences.) Furthermore, since these are hard economic times, I can appreciate why the bean-counters end up speaking with a louder voice than the music-lovers; but bean-counters are almost always interested in nothing more than short-term gain. The long-term risk is that they may be cultivating an audience whose capacity for listening becomes as damaged as that of the experimental subjects discussed in that Telegraph report. After all, if, as I have argued, the only way to learn how to listen to music is to experience music performances, then such performances that compromise the ability to listen at all may end up doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately, I lack the stirring rhetoric of the "Communist Manifesto" to enjoin music-lovers of the world to unite against these bean-counters. Indeed, at a time when just about any performing arts organization is trying to get by on an overly-tight budget, it is hard for me to even suggest that casting negative votes with one's pocketbook is a good idea. We do not want this economic crisis to turn into a Social Darwinist instrument that will "select out" performing ensembles on the basis of their ability to "survive." On the other hand, since all of us have limited budgets, too, we can make it a point to spend our money on the most beneficial experiences we can find and then hope (against hope?) that such acts of personal choice may lead to greater availability of such experiences.

There is, however, one bit of "negative reinforcement" that I can apply in a somewhat playful spirit; and that is my Chutzpah of the Week award. As I see it, implementing decisions that are good for the balance sheets without being good for the audiences, particularly when the audiences have no say in the matter, is as good an instance of negative-connotation chutzpah as any. Thus, this week's award will be assigned to those members of the operations team of the American Bach Soloists in the (probably desperate) hope that their counterparts in the management of other quality ensembles will get the message!

No comments: