MacMillan/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky – Stephanie Heriger

First things first–my heart beat a little faster when Maestra Alsop took her place on the podium. And I doubt her comments regarding “being different” were lost on the audience (at least I’m hoping). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I found her handling of the MacMillan to be charged somehow. I loved every minute of it.

That said, I’m fairly certain I would’ve enjoyed the piece anyhow. So now comes a bit of a confession – I’m an Ives scholar. This would explain my penchant for pieces that force you sit up and listen and why I think a little (repeat – a little) audience discomfort can be a good thing. It also explains why, as Alsop was addressing the audience, I was reminded of the following:

In the summer of 1959, the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, performed for a Soviet audience at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow.  The concert was historic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra and The Rite of Spring – two works long banned in the Soviet Union.  Bernstein also chose to perform Ives’s The Unanswered Question.  The audience loved it and even demanded an encore (not bad for an unknown chamber piece by an altogether unfamiliar American composer).  Before the piece began, however, Bernstein broke tradition and spoke directly to the audience, introducing Ives and explaining his creative philosophies. This did not sit well with critics who thought the move immodest and conceited.  One went so far as to say that Bernstein “had violated all tradition by presuming to instruct the Russian audience in music from the podium.”

Now I realize that Saturday’s performance was far removed from the one I just described, but I wonder how audiences today feel about this kind of stage/seat interaction.  I, of course, have my own opinions, but I’m interested to know what others might think.  I also can’t help but note that only the MacMillan (like the Ives) needed an on-stage explanation.  Is it that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky need no introduction?  Again, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “MacMillan/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky – Stephanie Heriger”

  • ok, well, as a PSO employee, I’m not exactly an audience member and by virtue of the fact that I work here was exposed to the MacMillan well before the performances.
    All that said, I absolutely loved Marin Alsop’s introduction to the Confession – it’s remarkable how much more effective a few actual musical examples can be than oodles of text.
    Not necessarily more helpful in the long-run, but in the immediate environment of a first-performance they were amazingly informative. The idea of ‘introducing’ aspects of a work before performing it used to be horrifying to me, but Marin herself gave the best justification at the Friday post-concert Artist Chat (from the best of my memory, this is what she said):
    “Often, new music uses language that we are not familiar with. Listening to something in a completely foreign language seems a little pointless unless we’re given some small understanding, some landmarks, which we can hang on to.”
    As to why not for the Tchaikovsky and Beethoven – well, three times in one concert may have been a little much, and of the three the MacMillan was definitely most needy of Alsop’s ‘CliffNotes’ translation.
    BUT, I’d definitely be interested in hearing what, perhaps, Dutoit has to say about Brahms, or Davis on Elgar…
    I’m all for it!

  • You’ve brought up a very interesting and sensitive topic. As a musician, it’s not fair for me to make any judgment. As much as I would have preferred not having the verbal introduction to the piece, I would have to admit that it was a smart thing to do, at least for this audience, in this hall and at this time of history. I had similar experiences where my audience loved my intro. speech to each piece on my program and I personally think I won much of their “hearts” through this personal interaction…
    Having said that, the MacMillan piece, to me, was descriptive enough that an introduction doesn’t seem to be necessary. Again, we are at the different time of history, where concert music is no longer the “main stream”. When other genres (pops, R&B…) have way surpassed concert music in terms of accessibility, we need to re-examine our audience and their needs. The piece itself reminded me of Symphonie Fantastique, though the descriptive nature is more on the Strauss’s side than Mahler’s. To a nineteenth century, or even early twentieth century concert-goer, it needs no explanation. However, so much has happened in since then. So much has happened since 1959. After the era of Stockhausen, Penderecki, and still dwelling in the land of Part, Reich (whom I adore), and Glass, maybe that a bit of introduction is necessary.
    I don’t think I have answered your question and I am not going to attempt. Only what came from the stage was simply a creation of social and cultural currents. I can see how in 1959 Bernstein’s speech could stir up an argument, but today, here, it is not an issue.

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