Monday, March 2, 2009

So which is it . . .

Today the Globe continues its on-going promotion of the BSO with a front-page article about how the Symphony is dropping ticket prices for the under-40 crowd to just $20 (this after a huge write-up on the BSO in the Sunday Arts section two weekends ago). Now, I don't want to get snarky about this, because of course I support making classical music accessible to everyone (except old poor people, that is).

But I have to ask - isn't the BSO actually the least stressed arts organization in town? (With the possible exception of the MFA?) After all, it's got the largest endowment of any American orchestra (once assessed at $300 million, but probably worth somewhat less now, like everyone's). It would seem that their money troubles should be last on the list of local arts sob stories. Of course one could argue that the Globe is forced to write constantly about the BSO because that's the only local classical musical organization its subscribers have ever heard of; they're essentially "the Red Sox of classical music," as a friend of mine once put it. Or is the salient issue the rather large amount of advertising the BSO buys in the Globe? (Trust me, the current correspondence between advertising pages and critical attention will only grow - and it will ripple right through the pseudo-blogs like The Exhibitionist and HubArts, that cling to the Globe like pilot fish to a dying shark - and therefore evince the same bizarre double taste, for the Kinks and late European modernism!).

Okay, the world was ever thus, I know. But I do wish our local paper of record could keep its story straight. For years, the word from the Globe has been that James Levine's opera-queen-moderne programming was Exciting and Important because it was drawing in younger listeners (with the likes of Schoenberg and Elliott Carter!). Only now, apparently, not so much. Indeed, the Globe's coverage of Levine's tenure has long been, well, kind of schizophrenic - pretty much relentless praise of very expensive, who-asked-for-this epics like The Trojans and Moses and Aaron (which were really only programmed because they were rarities Levine hadn't conducted very often), combined with a continuous stream of lesser news items about cuts in staffing (even on stage!) and struggling subscription rates. Of course, it was quite easy to square this circle, even though the Globe never did it - the BSO had bought a ridiculously expensive New York brand in an attempt to look "world class," and the price tag kept going up, even as the paying public's interest in said brand's 1960's-era musical taste steadily declined.

On the plus side, yes, the orchestra began playing with much greater sensitivity and coherence; under Levine, they often sound superb. (His rehearsals are long and demanding, and it shows.) It may look like carping to wonder whether this is "enough," but, given his price tag, it must be pointed out that Levine didn't really build a "Boston sound" here; he merely gave Boston's power brokers some New York cachet. Levine clearly saw the BSO as an adjunct of his brand, a kind of franchise built on the same exquisite musicianship that he brought to the Met. Under Levine, the BSO's goal has been something like a dinner at the most expensive eatery in New York, and the Globe's critics have been more than content to simply describe the many scrumptious sauces the maestro has dished up.

Meanwhile, for me, the news has been elsewhere for awhile now, because to be frank, there's a certain underlying vacuum in intellectual originality at the BSO. For is music really only about the superbness of its execution? To be blunt, despite all the blather about "new music," Levine seems frozen in a certain period; at the BSO, the political and intellectual ferments of the 80's and 90's don't seem to have really happened. Indeed, oddly enough, much of the early music I hear locally actually sounds more timely than what I hear at the BSO. This is, to be fair, partly because the rarefied late-modern repertory Levine has tried to favor simply hasn't reached any kind of cultural critical mass; there's really nothing new to say or think about Moses and Aaron, for instance, because it's never going to be done often enough to build a sense of dialogue with the culture.

Hence there's simply a livelier conversation going on outside the walls of Symphony Hall than there is inside; Opera Boston often programs more interesting fare than Levine does, Handel and Haydn regularly brings in specialists with more original takes on Beethoven and Mozart, the Boston Philharmonic is usually more rousing, local choral groups are far more adventurous than the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Celebrity Series often pulls in bigger stars. Hell, these days even the Ballet has more intellectual content. Outside the BSO, I find himself thinking, and laughing, and gasping in surprise; inside the BSO, I often find myself impressed, but that's it. And let's be honest: if you want to hear cutting-edge Mozart, or the latest interpretations of Bach or Handel or Haydn, or the very newest new music, you don't go to the BSO. And that covers a lot of "classical music." The Symphony still does the late Romantic and early modern repertory better than anyone; and therefore they have a nice big endowment to keep up that commitment. Meanwhile the other groups cited above are dealing with at least the BSO's level of money trouble. So if the Globe wants to preserve a living classical tradition in this city, it has to begin to look beyond the doors of Symphony Hall.

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