Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Is Boulez too challenging for the Proms?

I, like many other classical music enthusiasts, have been paying close attention to the Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms this week, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the baton of Barenboim. Before it all started, I was very excited to see this very unique and perhaps brilliant choice to merge Boulez and Beethoven into the same concert. It is not everyday you get the chance to hear two composers, from two very different periods of music programmed together, especially when these two composers have made a huge impact in musical history. It was only recently however, that I've noticed quite a few audience members have had strong, negative opinions about the programming. [quoting comments in the Guardian]

"Of course audiences need to be challenged, but this was some distance past challenging".

"I hate the wilful disregard for the listener..."

A Proms audience is usually rather different from your usual concert audience, with an eclectic mix of different groups of listeners: classical music lovers who only like the 'pure classics', music students, and concert goers who attend just to soak up some culture. Of these three categories, you could most likely bet music students would be the group that could accept and listen to modern music, but the number of music students are small, and the main group that are willing to pay the ticket prices are the 'pure classical music' lovers: middle-aged, retired, middle to upper class. Especially with well-known names like Barenboim and Beethoven in the programme, you can be sure this group of pensioners make up most of the audience.

So, they see Boulez is in the programme, half probably know this is modern music, but figure it'll be rather short and they can endure it for the sake of Barenboim and Beethoven; the other half have probably never heard his name before, and decide it is a 'secondary composer' that could be Beethoven's contemporary. So when they are hit with what most people consider Boulez's greatest works such as 'Dérive 2' or 'Anthèmes', they are shaken. Thing is, every audience is shaken by something new. Isn't that what the new does? It surprises us... and the only difference is whether it shocks us in a positive way, or a negative way.

It is significant that Barenboim would choose to programme Boulez and Beethoven together, because the reaction that Boulez is still getting now, is what Beethoven would have faced in his time: shock and awe. There were unhappy reactions from the audience because he dismissed the traditional sonata form, or familiar chord progressions. Sure, programming a 50-minute long Boulez piece seems slightly heavy-handed, especially for the first Beethoven prom. Some said it completely overshadowed Beethoven (which is never what one wants in a Beethoven symphony cycle), but at least Boulez is being heard by two types of audiences that would never dabble in contemporary music otherwise. I say keep stuffing contemporary works in the middle of Beethoven or Mahler symphonies, otherwise contemporary music will always be confined to having its own concerts dedicated specifically to the genre, attended only by music students/professors.

Below is a video of Barenboim conducting members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performing Boulez's "Memoriale (...explosante-fixe...)" (personally one of my favourite Boulez works) at the Salzburg Festival in 2008.

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