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Orchestras hate it, too

Jörg Widmann thrashes to try to help the orchestra detect a beat.

Why would anyone pay up to $90 a seat to listen to someone beat on the back, the sides, and the neck of a violin, tunelessly sawing and scraping the poor thing when not beating it?

Lots of people won’t, which is why there were so many empty seats in the house for yesterday’s concert by the Berlin Philharmonic. (The concerts are live-streamed to online subscribers in the hinterlands such as me.) Those who did buy tickets at least knew that, if they could survive a violin concerto (plus some silly but virtuoso solo noodlings on the clarinet) newly composed by Jörg Widmann, then after intermission and a few drinks they’d be compensated with a Mendelssohn symphony.

The truth is, orchestras hate new music as much as audiences do. Some years ago, an old friend of mine was in the San Francisco Symphony (he’s now in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and he used to complain mightily about having to play new music. Orchestras have to play it, though, for political reasons. Else orchestras would be accused of playing only “museum music” and failing to support living composers.

It may be apocryphal, because I read it years ago and can’t verify the story anywhere on line today. But I believe the story was about the American composer Aaron Copland, who was in the audience for some new music — maybe Arnold Schönberg or something. Copland noticed that the man sitting next to him was fidgeting and squirming. At intermission, Copland said to the man something like, “What’s the matter? You don’t like it? Sit up and take it like a man!”

Copland, bless him, wrote quite listenable music, not least because he unapologetically borrowed from the late Romanticists rather than resorting to mere noise to rebel against them.

By the way, the soloist for Widmann’s violin concerto was his wife. And Widmann himself conducted. No further comment.

I believe the Berlin Philharmonic has a very successful business model, so no doubt they’re well aware of what sells tickets and what doesn’t. Looking over their schedule for the 2023-2024 season, it seems to me that they clear the decks of the new music early in the season (September). And then, come October, November, and December, when the people of Berlin are much more in a concertgoing mood, the programs change — Mozart piano concertos! Mahler symphonies! Mozart’s 40th! Brahms’ 4th! Beethoven’s 4th! A Beethoven piano concerto! Wagner overtures!

If there are valid political reasons why orchestras have to play new music, fine. But nobody should have to pretend to like it — except maybe the composer’s wife, if even she does.

Carolin Widmann

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