- Which work qualifies as The Great American Symphony?
- Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan were icons of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy. What conductors alive today can compare?
- Who wins your award as The Person Least Likely to be Engaged as a Narrator for Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait?
My own responses follow. Feel free to share your own. A link to create a comment appears at he bottom of this post.
Which work qualifies as The Great American Symphony?
The question is a poser because no consensus has yet emerged on this. Great works are composed, but you can't just name The Great American Symphony the way you can The Great American Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra or The Great American Elegiac Work for Strings. Not if the symphony has to be by an American, that is.
Aaron Copland staked a claim with his Third Symphony. The general sense at the table was that, appealing though the work is, it hasn't carved a place for itself that compares, for example, to the symphonies of Shostakovich or Sibelius, two of Copland's contemporaries.
(But isn't it often that way? Works by eastern European composers, such as Gubaidulina, Pärt and Górecki often bear a formidable weight of experience. Someone has endured something and needs to tell you about it. Their American contemporaries are as likely as not to be basing works on comic books, rock drum riffs and the music of Desi Arnaz.)
The symphonies of Roy Harris and Charles Ives have their champions, as do works by Barber and Hanson. And with the likes of Corigliano, Zwilich, Rouse, Larsen, Danielpour, Higdon, Adams, Tower, Jones and Kernis making music on the American landscape, it may well be that the symphony already exists that will, in time, gain the consensus.
Until a consensus emerges on a work by an American, I submit that The Great American Symphony has been staring us in the face for years. It just wasn't written by an American.
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphony no. 9 in E minor, opus 95 'From the New World'
Dvorak had a program in mind for the symphony that drew its inpiration from the popular poem Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The famous slow movement was inspired by the funeral of Minnehaha.
Dvorak's symphony is instantly recognised around the world. It is an icon of American culture as surely as the Statue of Liberty is. Let it be noted that, if Dvorak's symphony is not the work of an American composer, neither is Lady Liberty the work of an American sculptor. And what could be more American than to care about the content of a person's ideals over the circumstances of their ancestry and place of birth?
Dvorak's 'New World' sets the standard. It represents The Great American Symphony until a work by a native composer emerges to dislodge it, or at least share a spot with it on the pedestal.
What conductors alive today can compare to Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan as giants in their field and icons of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy?
This question was likely rhetorical. When someone asks 'Who compares?' it's usually a safe bet that the speaker thinks no one does. Offering a straight reply spoils the party simply by being a straight reply. One has rejected the implied premise.
If that's true in this case, so be it. Bernstein and Karajan never stood head and shoulders above their major-league contemporaries as musicians, and they don't now. They possessed remarkable talents, yes. But the competition is too fierce to concede to them the lead. Their contemporaries? Carlos Kleiber, George Szell, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Dmitri Mitropoulis, James DePriest, Klaus Tennstedt, John Eliot Gardiner, Günther Herbig and many more. Each one of these individuals represents a formidable talent in his own right.
One can be a fan of any conductor one chooses. But on the matter of musicianship we are faced, speaking realistically, with a case of 'any given Sunday.' Which repertoire? Performed at what stage of the musician's career? Which ensemble? How are we to rate the worth of an iconoclastic, idiosyncratic vision of a work? How are we to rate the value of versatility? How to rate fidelity to the score?
If Bernstein and Karajan seem to stand out for 'star quality', it is not because as musicians they outperformed, say, Carlos Kleiber. It is because they outperformed Kleiber in the realm of becoming media darlings. They stood head and shoulders above their colleagues in their ability to generate press hype.
The ability to make a celebrity of oneself is not the same thing as musical ability. A number of non-musical skills are involved. Celebrity standing primarily measures the ability to give journalists what they want: access, good copy, and just the right amount of controversy. It measures one's ability, and to a large extent one's determination, to appear on front pages. It measures the ability to structure contracts and work markets in a way that nurtures the desired media image.
Many people like to feel that some correlation between talent and celebrity exists. We don't like feeling that stars are stars mainly because business leaders have decided it is more lucrative for them to sell these individuals to us rather than other individuals of equal or greater merit.
Many fine musicians don't run the marketing race. Kleiber never sought to make himself ubiquitous in the record stores. He was exceedingly fussy about records with his name on them and let very little go out. Karajan intended to flood the bins and arranged his contracts with labels to ensure that he did. George Szell had little patience with the press and was no one's idea of a media pretty boy. Still, in the minds of many musicians he is the standout conductor of his generation among those leading American orchestras. Haitink has always gone toe-to-toe with Karajan for versatility. But he did little guest conducting for most of his career outside of Europe, with consequent results for his celebrity status overseas. When asked why he didn't do more conducting in the States, Haitink wondered aloud how jet setters get any meaningful score study done. Haitink, though nearly as prolific as Karajan in the recording studio and more prolific than Bernstein, shunned press hype. He wanted substance. If people saw him on television, it would be because he was conducting a televised concert, not giving an interview.
This is a big reason why success in marketing cannot be naively equated with success in musicianship. Too many superb musicians don't excel and marketing, and don't care to.
Karajan and Bernstein were the media darlings of their day as Toscanini and Stokowski were for the generation before theirs. A nostalgic glow attaches itself to past celebrities in times that seem lacking in such 'star quality.' But the difficulty we have identifying comparable 'stars' today is no reflection on the quality of our generation's musicians. It is partly due to the human tendency to forget the warts on exalted figures of the past so that only the glow remains. This pattern that repeats itself every generation. But a key reason for the difficulty today is that today's musicians live after the revolution. The record industry that made Karajan and Bernstein into stars no longer exists. The journalism that supported that industry no longer exists. Ours is a new landscape.
We still have plenty of conductors today who can serve as exemplars for anyone demanding exemplars. One has only to look. Apollonian ideals? Abbado. Dionysian forces? Dudamel.
Who wins your award as The Person Least Likely to be Engaged as a Narrator for Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait?
Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.
Though the New York Philharmonic might still give him a tryout.