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Made in America, but Rarely Played Here

Too few orchestras here are willing to do what their counterparts abroad have done successfully: Program works by U.S. composers.

August 13, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Four years ago, the BBC Symphony held an extensive festival at the Barbican Centre in London devoted to the music of Charles Ives, America's first great, pioneering composer. The British didn't get everything entirely right--some performances were a bit on the bland side, and the vile-looking hot dogs and a peculiarly greasy "American" pudding that were consumed with gusto needed work.

Strangest of all was the constant reaction of the locals to a visiting American. "Don't you hear this sort of thing all the time?" they would ask, thinking how unnecessary it would be for them to hop across the pond to hear Vaughan Williams or Delius.

"Well, no, not exactly," I told them, puzzled as to how I could explain that the American orchestra is, and always has been, a profoundly un-American institution.

Most orchestras in this country do not know and do not care about American music, and they are convinced that you and I don't care or want to know about it either. They see their mandate as one of protecting culture, in this case, a culture produced in Europe 100 or 200 years ago. They therefore make it their business to protect us from ourselves.

No city is more American than Philadelphia. Yet the fabulous Philadelphians (as the city's orchestra likes to call itself) are hardly fabulous Americans in the 12-CD set of live performances the orchestra recently issued to celebrate its history. It contains only enough American music to fill a single CD, including such cautious choices as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." A recent Chicago Symphony self-produced 10-CD set has only a slightly better average. And take a look at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's classical series at the Hollywood Bowl--that most populist of venues. Around 5% of the music programmed for this summer was made in the United States.

Orchestras have the numbers to justify their actions. The 91-year-old Elliott Carter may be the universally acknowledged dean of American composers, but program an all-Carter concert and watch the audience-alienating instrumental complexity of the music empty a house. An all-John-Adams evening will do better with crowds, and all Copland better still (if the works are the popular ones). But serve up conventional Beethoven or Mozart--or Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff--as the bill of fare, and a large audience with an appetite for music will materialize as if out of thin air. It's true in Los Angeles, and it is true across America.

Audiences vote with their ticket purchases. But they also choose from what is presented to them. As far back as 1849, Thoreau insisted that his fellow citizens defy party hacks and power brokers who put the presidential candidates on the ballot. The voter, he wrote in "Civil Disobedience," "forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue." Despite the primary system, we don't seem to have made much progress in politics in 150 years. Nor in music.

The Bowl management may consider itself a benign demagogue, appealing to what it judges to be the comfort level and interests of a broad audience. It feels constrained by the necessity of selling enough tickets to help finance the orchestra's more artistically vibrant (and, to be fair, more American) winter season. But audience preconceptions come from what is made available to them.

Consequently, listeners, who are inadequately exposed to the sheer breadth of American music, are easily convinced that it is weird, inaccessible and probably not very good--unless it's by Gershwin. But could it be that unlike American literature, American movies, American dance, American painting, American sculpture, American video art, American architecture or American theater, virtually all of American art music fails to connect with American lives? A few years ago, when the New York Philharmonic, the nation's oldest orchestra and historically the one with the strongest commitment to American music, featured some of our most important composers, including Ives, it labeled them eccentrics.

The San Francisco Symphony has a better term, mavericks, which it uses to relate American composers from Ives and Copland through Cage, Adams and Meredith Monk to the intrepid spirit of the country. During its three-week "American Mavericks" festival in June, the San Francisco Symphony proved something that should be obvious but isn't. Play the music that was made for the people in the audience; play it not out of duty but out of love; and the people will come and they will cheer and they will not want to go home.

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