glass notes
Portland Opera Gambles on Philip Glass


Conductor of Portland Opera's production of Philip Glass' opera Orphée


I do recognized the artistic gumption it takes to program a modern work like Orphée versus a piece of standard repertoire like La Boheme.  The irony for the American landscape of classical music is as the writer puts it, a tension between creative and commercial concerns.  Bizarrely, in my opinion, for American audiences it is more lucrative to be extremely conservative.  In other words, for artistic administrators of orchestras and opera companies, artistic and commercial success is the same thing: your job would be to play Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, et al as much as possible. Not only will you give yourself some job security, but you'll please more audiences than by taking a risk.

Just look at classical radio (even when it's a public station without the same commercial pressures of a private station), the programming is almost exclusively warhorses of the classical canon. Ask yourself, how long since you heard the words coming out of the speakers spouting little chestnuts like, "And coming up next, something by Mozart," or how long since I've heard Copland's Appalachian Spring on the radio or seen it programmed by my local orchestra.

So all the more credit goes to those institutions who do take risks. Risks should not only be for designated ensembles. I come from a little city with a big orchestra. The Boston Symphony embarked on a very exciting project this season, a Beethoven symphony cycle (whoopeee! Beethoven is such an underperformed composer, I'm glad he's finally getting his due.) The BSO does make limited efforts, mainly through the programming decisions of James Levine, to program modern music.  Yet these efforts almost always fall short, are never repeated, do poorly at the box office, and play no part in any sort of institutional conviction in what they are doing.  And I believe, the Boston Symphony is more than happy to let the modern and experimental be the province of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Conversely, we all see what's happening in Los Angeles.  While what their new music director, 28 year old Gustavo Dudamel is still an unproven entity in many ways, but his pros far outweigh his cons.  They have momentum and they are running with it out there in sunny Southern California.  

With that said, the huge musical legacy which LA should embrace but doesn't is its history of film music. Some of the best orchestral music written in the last 100 years happened to have been composed for film.  it is theirs for the taking.  I can understand the LA Phil's uneasiness with that legacy as they are trying to be regarded as a forward looking yet serious musical institution.  Again, this is all part and parcel to that tension between what is commercial and what is creatively artistic.

So bravi to those who have the courage to step out on a limb because they like a certain piece, or think it's important to present. For all my talk,  who knows if I'd have that courage if faced with an uncomfortable amount of risk.  So for those in the Portland Oregon area, go check out what's happening at the Portland Opera, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Leave a Reply