Debussy Riot: Should classical musicians have to put on a show

  • Composer, professor at Peabody Institute, and founder/director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series Judah Adashi published an interesting guest blog post on The Sybaritic Singer titled “Curating is More Than Just Good Programming.” It starts off with a quote: “‘As you say, the series is just starting up; the first show is…[laughs] “show;” that’s not what you call a classical music recital, is it?’
    “This was Aaron Henkin, host of WYPR’s The Signal in Baltimore, sheepishly correcting himself on air during an interview we did a few weeks ago. Little did he know that he had stumbled upon something very much on my mind these days. If musicians aren’t putting on a show, what exactly are we doing, and why would we expect anyone to attend?”
  • Adashi’s post calls into question the expected formalities surrounding classical music performances, and explains the way he tries to present a “multidimensional experience for the audience” when he plans out the programs for the Evolution Contemporary Music Series. “It’s important to ask ourselves why we expect people to come hear us make music, and what kind of vibe we’re trying to create around it,” he writes. “Playing great music very well is rarely enough, and curating a concert should involve more than good programming.”
    His post made me recall Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s last Off the Cuff concert in October, on Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.” It was the first Off the Cuff concert I’d been to, and I found Marin Alsop’s opening explanation of the piece utterly delightful, in large part because of the personable ease with which she spoke and the way the musicians responded to her cues to play. It made for a stark contrast to the usual formalities of BSO concerts (although I do appreciate those as well, don’t get me wrong).
  • There are a couple of upcoming classical performances in Baltimore that appear to subscribe to Adashi’s ideas about putting on a show. The SONAR New Music Ensemble will open its season on Nov. 21 and 23 with Child’s Play, a concert “inspired by youth, innocence and vitality.” One of the pieces the group will be performing is Thomas Adés’ ‘Catch,’ in which the “ensemble must actually catch the clarinetist and force her to sit down.”
  • This Saturday there’s BSO’s next Off The Cuff concert, “Shostakovich 5: Notes For Stalin,” which we wrote about in City Paper’s Fall Arts Guide. The first part of the concert will feature a symphonic play by Didi Balle, the BSO’s playwright in residence, that combines live classical music with semi-staged theater to dramatize the experiences of composer Dmitri Shostakovich when he lived in fear after falling out of favor with the Stalin regime. The second half of the concert will be a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which the composer premiered with the hope that it would curry favor with the Soviet leadership.
  • And on Dec. 9, we’ll be able to see how well Adashi puts his ideas about concert curation into practice when composer David Lang comes to An Die Musik as part of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series. 
  • Speaking of Adashi, he released a track in September that features cellist Lavena Johanson playing his composition ‘My Heart Comes Undone’ for cello and loop pedal. Inspired by Bjork’s song ‘Unravel,’ it’s a meditative piece full of longing that sucks you in for its full seven minutes. The song is available to download on Adashi’s Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to the BSO’s OrchKids program.
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