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When it comes to new music, audiences like a helping hand

By Thor Eckert Jr. / October 16, 1986



Why is it that in the past three decades or so, symphony audiences have tended to go from a toleration of new music to a stubborn refusal to even give it a chance? This question was answered in part by two concerts I attended on opposites sides of the continent. The San Francisco Symphony presented oboist Heinz Holliger in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's '52 Oboe Concerto; the New York Philharmonic hosted composer/conductor Luciano Berio in a program of Haydn and two of his own works. In San Francisco, the audiences listened attentively; in New York, they grumbled a good deal, and left noisily, throughout the concluding Two-Piano Concerto.

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In San Francisco, Mr. Holliger talked to his audience; in New York Mr. Berio conducted without commentary. Holliger clearly felt that a personal viewpoint would help the audience. Berio followed the more common attitude of silence. That attitude, which has been hardening in the past decades, is something very close to arrogance.

Admittedly, ``arrogance'' is a harsh word. But how else to fully indicate the manner in which too much new music is forced onto subscription audiences without any real attempt at helping them through what can be a difficult musical experience? It is as if the institutions are forgetting that these people form the financial basis on which the symphony orchestra functions.

Gone are the days when audiences went to concerts to make up their own minds -- pro or con -- about the new. They began tuning out when so many composers chose to embrace the so-called 12-tone or serial method of composition and reject the apparent decadence of tonality. Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg found ways of making this cerebral method meaningful. In Berg's case, it was also expressive, passionate. Of course, they were all geniuses.

The conservatories began to teach serialism to the exclusion of anything else. Budding composers who flirted with melody were mocked by the professors, and, eventually, by the critics many of those professors trained as well. Composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich were mercilessly belittled; music lovers were brow-beaten into feeling abashed if they did not agree that there was music in serialism.

This all began changing some 10 years ago. Composers with melodic bents were suddenly encouraged. Critics dared to admit that they wanted to hear music that meant something more to a composer than mere mathematic formula. So composers began to turn toward melody again, but melody that also incorporated the elements of atonality that have become a part of the compositional vernacular.

Now that there is a turn toward melody, drama, and passion in music, the audiences are unwilling to give anything new much of a hearing. Why? Because, over the past two or three decades, the musical institutions that felt they should offer the new with the tried and true, just deposited these works on the programs, sometimes with a moderately helpful note, often not. They have not been given anything to suggest that they might find their curiosity piqued if they had the chance.

Consider how Holliger talked to his audience. He was downright disarming. ``Why on this beautiful and sunny day, do we have to listen to ugly modern music?'' he said. He proceeded to discuss what the piece meant to him, and why he can't play the old without playing the new, and vice versa. The audience was on his side. And his committed, compelling performance of this neo-Stravinskian concerto was an equally persuasive argument for new (or at least newer) music.

There is no question that, had Berio shared some ideas as to what he was trying to say in ``Voci II'' or why he wrote the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, many would have appreciated the gesture and might have listened more attentively. And yet talking to the audience is considered poor form.

Leonard Bernstein was often chastised by the musical elite for proselytizing in his avant-garde series of the '60s, even though audiences actually appreciated hearing someone who cared about what was about to happen. But no, according to that musical elite, audiences were expected to endure the music, just because it was there.

We have plenty of conductors and soloists who are effective talkers. Zubin Mehta is a witty, engaging public speaker. Critics would probably take him to task, though, for trying to disarm the resistance. But I am sure audiences would appreciate having a helping hand. It would simply take the commitment and patience of those involved to break down the barriers between audiences and new music.