Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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In the Shadow of the Shadow of Stalin

May 14, 2007

Peter Stumpf takes a bow
with Bramwell Tovey and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: Mine 2007

Although the LA Phil’s “Shadow of Stalin” programs kicked off earlier this week, the programs Salonen will lead won’t start for a couple more weeks, leaving a couple of weekend programs in the interim. This weekend’s offering under the leadership of composer/conductor Bramwell Tovey included orchestral exerpts from Peter Grimes and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Sandwiched between these was the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 1 with Principal Cellist Peter Stumpf doing the honors. However, apparently this particular Shostakovich wasn’t quite in Stalin’s shadow yet. This was evidenced not only by the Phil’s marketing materials but also by the performance itself which was perhaps the least “Russian” I’ve heard. Stumpf took a far more lyrical approach, smoothing out the harsher edges in the piece. This would have worked out OK, I suppose, if Tovey hadn’t decided to run over him with the rest of the players.

Of course, it was made clear early on that this was not to be Shostakovich’s evening in the pre-concert talk. Here the focus was on the British composers on the evenings bill, and, not surprisingly, Tovey elicited wonderful performances of both works. My issue with everything was more of a philosophical one. In the pre-concert talk composer Daniel Catán invited Tovey to posit Elgar and later Britten as adherents to an anti-Schoenberg tradition opposed to a modernist movement that ideologically constricts otherwise well-intentioned composers to produce unlistenable "jarring" music. This modernist endeavor is apparently supported by “critics” but opposed by audiences who have wisely voted with their dollars against anything “jarring” in favor of something catchier. (Like the Macarena and the theme from Ghostbusters, perhaps? They were certainly all the rage in their own day!)

Now despite the rampant anti-intellectual populism and numerous logical fallacies with this argument, what really stuck in my craw here is the continued insistence of an either/or approach to music appreciation. Why anyone needs to create a bogeyman out of Schoenberg or anyone else to legitimate programming Britten or Elgar is beyond me. Like the old west, there isn’t apparently room enough in town for both Stockhausen and Britten. Which gets me to thinking – can’t we all just play along?

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