State of the Art

concert music in 2006

A “year in review” article or an annual Top Ten list in any art form is, of course, an exercise in arbitrariness. In addition to the emphasis and biases of the writer influencing the surveys and lists, there is the little commented-on fact that the events of the year in question are, in general, releases, performances, and publications of works of art that were conceived and created in some previous year.

The creative time lag between the conception and creation of a new piece of concert music and its first performance is often (usually?) more than a year. Additionally, most performance organizations set their programs years in advance. The upshot of all this is that this year’s premiere is a reflection of artistic trends and priorities of X number of years ago.

The lack of timeliness in concert music reaching the public is even more pronounced in recordings. It is not exactly a secret that concert music is not a powerful engine driving the recording industry. It can take a very long time for a new work by a major composer to become available in a commercial recording. It’s not for nothing that the criteria for the Grammy award for “Best New Classical Composition” specify that the work must have been written in the last 25 years and be issued in a recording for the first time during the award year.

All of this is to say that most of the stuff that happens in a given calendar year in concert music is a product of aesthetic and other conditions in some earlier year. Nevertheless, stuff does happen between January 1st and December 31st, and it’s possible that the concerns, ideas, and issues that will occupy the concert music world in the near future have their seeds in what happened this year.

The death of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in July spawned an outpouring of grief and praise in the music press and among fans. Her intensely personal performances in a wide range of repertoire (from Handel and Bach to John Adams, John Harbison, Kaija Saariaho, and the love songs written for her by her husband Peter Lieberson) were — and are, in recordings — demonstrations of how concert music of both the past and present speaks to and for our lives in the 21st century.

Concert music fans and practitioners appear to have embraced 21st century technology, at least as far as new distribution systems are concerned. When sales of concert music recordings are discussed/lamented, the figure most often cited is 3% of total recorded music sales. iTunes reports that approximately 12% of their downloads are of concert music, and there have been reports that other services have had similar results. Performance organizations like the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra have embraced new technology, offering recordings of concerts on the web with quick turnarounds. The LA Philharmonic site also offers podcasts related to upcoming events. Record companies like Universal Classics have also established strong presences on the web, including downloads, podcasts, and other multimedia content. Bridge Records, a label specializing in, but not limited to, modern and contemporary American music, recently announced an agreement to acquire “exclusive internet download and streaming rights;” to the catalogs of Premier Recordings and GM Recordings, which will expand Bridge’s presence in the fields of jazz and older American concert music.

2006 saw a dramatic increase in the availability of DVDs devoted to concert music and opera. In addition to a wealth of operas (in both taped performance and opera-as-film form) and concert recordings (Leonard Bernstein’s performances of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies stands out here) there have been recordings made for DVD, documentaries about musicians, and DVDs containing a mixture of all of the above, usually related to one composer or one performer. Mode Records has been a pioneer in this type of DVD, which typically include audio-only tracks in incredible 96-bit sound (as opposed to CD-quality 24 bits), interviews, and made-for-DVD performance films. I have seen one or two made-for-DVD pieces but not yet enough to know what the future holds for that genre.

Just as these new technologies are being exploited by the concert music world, so are more aggressive/hip/interactive marketing methods being utilized by presenters and performers alike. The most visible of these institutions is the Metropolitan Opera (NY), which has initiated a series of bold outreach programs in an attempt to increase visibility and ticket sales. The most exciting of these is the closed circuit transmission of six live performances to movie theaters in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom in high definition. The Met televised its opening night performance on big screens outside the theater and in Times Square. In addition, its website has been updated and made more interactive and it has modernized its advertising, reflecting a change in attitude from a narrow economy of scarcity — opera is rarefied and only for the elect — to a broader, more inclusive economy of abundance.

One of the performances being broadcast by the Met is the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. This highlighting of a new work is an indication of the growing importance of new opera. The past 15 months have seen premieres of operas by John Adams (Doctor Atomic and the Flowering Tree), Kaija Saariaho (Adriana Mater), Wolfgang Rihm (Das Gehege and Salome), Stephen Hartke (The Greater Good), Ned Rorem (Our Town), Lowell Liebermann (Miss Lonelyhearts), and Tobias Picker (An American Tragedy), among many others. People concerned about the future of concert music/opera point to opera as an ideal medium for attracting new audiences, because we are very much a visual/narrative culture. And new opera may well be a gateway to new music.

Two of the biggest stories in the music world in 2006 combined in the person of Jay Greenberg, teen composing sensation. The release of a recording of his Fifth(!) Symphony and a String Quintet was the occasion for (mostly) huzzahs in the mainstream musical press and (mostly) caution in the concert music blogosphere. Alex Ross had praised Mr. Greenberg’s music and its romantic sound in an article in The New Yorker in May 2004: “For him, it is 1904 and anything is possible.;” Not everyone was so enamored. Alan Rich wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The shadow of Mozart usually falls across reports of latter-day wonder-kids; it doesn’t in Matthew Gurewitsch’s Times piece on Greenberg, but I’m sure it lurks close at hand. The difference, however, is obvious. Mozart composed in the latest manner of his day, not in the manner of 1904, or whatever its equivalent throwback at the time. Whatever you may think of Mr. Greenberg’s retro-style, his music and the top-down hype it was given by Sony, his recording provoked a lengthy and mostly thoughtful debate in the concert music blogosphere. The mainstream musical media ignored blog-based Greenberg debates. Eventually there will be a pushback from blogs against a Next Big Thing or Flavor of the Month anointed by record companies that the mainstream media covers. When it does, the blogosphere will have status similar to that attained by political blogs in 2006. Norman Lebrecht’s column on concert music blogs may well represent the next step in the growth of the concert music blogosphere: When ignoring them doesn’t work, attack.

Finally, we come to the two biggest stories of the year in concert music, stories that have been and will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. The first of these is the decline and imminent death of concert music. For evidence of this, see most of the stories mentioned above; institutions struggling to find a foothold through marketing tricks, small percentages of recordings sales, people so despairing of new music that they turn to a teenager with loads of technique who may eventually have something to say, prominent composers toiling in a genre (opera) that is hopelessly dated and passé, and the passing of great artists that remind us of what we have lost and hard it may be to replace.

The other biggest story of the year is the unprecedented growth of concert music. For evidence of this, see most of the stories mentioned above; institutions reaching out to new audiences through new means, the adaptation of new technologies to distribute the music to these new audiences, serious discussions about what it means to be creative and original, the compositional revitalization of opera, and even the passing of performers whose greatness reminds us of what we can still produce in this vital and very much alive art form.