Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Blog.

This week marks the fifth year of my blogging career. The first half of that time was somewhat pseudonymous, but with an odd gap here and there it's been pretty continuous blogging for the past half of a decade. That's a long time! When I started, I was in graduate school, still in coursework, just beginning to study for my special fields exam (the topic was "American Modernism" if you want to know), living in Los Angeles with a roommate and two cats, and visiting my girlfriend in London as much as I could. Almost hard to recognize that life as mine at this point, so much has changed. Not the least of which was Phil Ford adding me to the Dial M blogroll, which suddenly propelled this space out into public. In a good way!

Anyways, happy birthday, blog. Here's to another five.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Philly Music Revisited

I was typing out an epic-length comment in response to some of those on the previous post, but since it's my blog, I thought I should just turn it into a new post!

The Orchestra definitely does a lot of outreach. (and, as Ralph knows but others might not, the person in charge of those efforts is a card-carrying musicologist, and a good one.) Certainly better than our other big classical music institution, Curtis, whose efforts pale in comparison to Juilliard or Eastman, even when accounting for its small size. But I guess I think that the fundamental outlook of the orchestra is the Valhalla approach, in which the Orchestra is hard to differentiate from the city's art museum, standing on top of a hill approached by an enormous staircase. There's a lot of value in trying to draw a new and diverse audience through outreach and education, letting Rocky climb the stairs, as it were, but I don't think it's going to structurally change the relationship between orchestra and city.

Also, I don't mean to give the impression that the city is declining, in the same sort of declining narrative that faces the rust belt cities and orchestras. Definitely less relative money than there once was a century ago, but a lot more money than there was thirty years ago, and, I would further argue, less segregated than it used to be, when the wealthy suburbs controlled institutions like the Orchestra and the Art Museum, and the city itself remained largely working class. But the old-fashioned Main Line suburbs are much less starkly class stratified than they used to be. Some money is moving even further out in the suburbs, other money (in the form of evil gentrifiers such as myself) is moving into the city, and the suburbs are getting more diverse themselves. As I say, it's an extremely vibrant place these days, and it's not that there is no market for sophisticated high culture.

So what I wish is that the Orchestra was actually more sophisticated, in a contemporary sense. This is a much milder critique of the orchestra than it probably is coming off as. I love the Philadelphia Museum of Art because despite all odds it fits in surprisingly well into the city's urban life. Admittedly this is partly because of Rocky. But it's also because its longtime director, the late Anne d'Harnoncourt, invested heavily in contemporary American art, and also in the works of Duchamp--Philly has by far the world's greatest collection of Duchamp, just about any piece of his that you've heard of is here. Not exactly what one would predict from the stuffy surroundings, and it makes for a wonderful art experience. (Side note: if Bruce Nauman's Days is still installed there, you must go see it right now--beautiful and devastating.)

My slowly-unfolding analogy to the Orchestra is that I wish their model was the west coast orchestras, not the NY Phil. The SF and LA bands made heavy investments in contemporary music over the past few decades, and in my hometown of San Francisco, I gather that they've been rewarded with a young and enthusiastic audience base that likes exciting new music in addition to the canon. I don't know any numbers, but that was my sense when I was living in the Bay Area. Philly doesn't have as many financial resources as SF, but I think that if they stepped up their contemporary programming, and positioned themselves as part of a dynamic, cosmopolitan arts scene rather than just an educational museum, they might be surprised at the possibilities.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Welcome to Philly

The big music news 'round these parts today is the selection of 35 year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the next director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Inqy's Peter Dobrin has the full story here. I like this headshot they're circulating of Yannick; the short hair is a definite improvement over the longer spikier thing he's usually seen in.

The Orchestra has been in rough shape these past few years, with severe financial problems. Philly is not a wealthy town, and it's hard to support an expensive band like this one. The press release I got about the appointment tried mightily to sound as excited as possible about Yannick, clearly trying to draw parallels to Dudamel-mania. And who knows, maybe having a good-looking young Canadian at the helm will help things.

May I be blunt, however? The real problem with the Philadelphia Orchestra is an institutional culture of snobbery and conservatism. I say this knowing plenty of great people who work and play on Broad Street. It's not the fault of any one person, even the recent music directors. But you frequently hear complaints about disrespectful treatment of concertgoers, especially if one is involved in student rush or any low-priced ticket situations; I've experienced that myself. The repertoire that gets played is invariably stodgy, even the new commissions, and the moldy oldies are often pretty moldy. I still mentally fall asleep everytime I remember hearing Eschenbach do Le Sacre a few years back. Granted I'm spoiled from having grown up with the San Francisco Symphony as my hometown orchestra, and then spent four years in LA during the Esa-Pekka reign.

Why the stodgery in Philadelphia? I think part of the answer to that question lies in the city's own deeply institutionalized snobbery. Philadelphia was the height of this country's high culture for a very long time, and it never really came to grips with the end of that era. The wealthy suburbs of the Main Line are beautiful and quaint, but the dirty secret is that there isn't actually that much money in them compared to NYC, DC, or Boston, let alone the West Coast. I have a lawyer friend moving here from California, and he quickly realized that there wasn't a single corporate law firm in the city as big or prestigious as where he's coming from. Native Philadelphians (I am obviously not one myself) are always quick to brag about having the nation's first public library, first zoo, first stock exchange, etc. But that all happened a long time ago. The Philadelphia Story would never be set here today.

This produces a situation in which Philadelphia clings rather desperately to its now faded icons of high culture, and in a sad tautology therefore enforces upon those icons a conservatism that actually bleeds them of their vitality. High art institutions in NYC, and especially in SF and LA, don't have that kind of insecurity, and are therefore able to experiment and push boundaries.

So I hope that Yannick is able to take a stab at this problem, at least in his corner of the Kimmel Center. But I also don't care that much. I think Philadelphia would be surprised at how little we'd miss the Orchestra if it disappeared. All of that fading high culture actually produces a really great city to live in. The arts scene here is tremendously vibrant, spurred on by housing and living costs that are much cheaper than the other big east coast cities. Mary and I are moving next month into the most desirable neighborhood in the city, and you would not believe how cheap it is. There are fabulous restaurants, a great music scene, tons of artists running around, lots of cozy little neighborhood bars with local beers, what's not to love. There are lots of schools, great chamber ensembles, community choruses, everything you could want. Who needs an expensive storage facility for Mahler? Not me.*

*Obviously I would miss the steady employment for a bunch of the world's best orchestral musicians and then the trickle-down effect of that on the city's musical economy. But allow me some rhetorical excess here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

MIA in Links

I really like Sady Doyle's discussion of the Times profile of MIA at Tiger Beatdown (hat tip to JMR on Facebook!). I like MIA's music a lot, and find her politics very intriguing--not that I necessarily always agree with them, or think she is free of hypocrisy (who isn't!), but they are always provocative. If you haven't seen her now notorious video for "Born Free," be sure to give it a whirl. Not for the faint of heart, but in this Age of Arpaio I personally find it quite powerful. There is no shortage of commentary about this video out there, but the musicologically-inclined might appreciate that Steve Waksman was interviewed about that video and others for a Metro feature on "Girls Gone Wild" in recent pop music--his expert commentary there is a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The ironic thing is that the Gentrys come from this area originally. Sometime in the 1680s, two brothers from Essex, Samuel and Nicholas, settled along the Totopotomoy Creek in New Kent County, near where the college and then capital at Williamsburg Plantation would be built twenty years later. Back then it was part of St. Peter's Parish (where George and Martha got married, incidentally), and the Jacobean church that presumably my ancestors helped build in 1701 is still there today.

This is all ironic because I seriously have no idea how my illustrious forefathers and foremothers survived this miserable, miserable weather. Without air-conditioning, no less. Philly gets pretty grim in the summer too, but nothing like this. How do you southerners do it? How did a bunch of pale Englishmen in the 17th century do it? Whatever fortitude they possessed seems to have leaked out of their genetic material in the last three centuries. Or maybe it's the fault of my mother's side.

Only a few more weeks of summer session left, however, and then back up north permanently. Next year I'm taking a position at the University of Delaware. Not tenure-track, but full-time. I adjuncted there a year ago and greatly enjoyed my time there, so I'm thrilled to be coming back. UD is a hidden gem of education on the east coast. Thanks to its low tuition the school attracts a surprisingly cosmopolitan student body from around the country, with a particularly large and thriving music department. Plus, it is just south of Philadelphia, so Mary and I will be able to live together (!) in the city and commute to our respective jobs. So yay for that.

On the other hand, I've had a lovely year at William & Mary. The music department is extremely warm and welcoming to its visiting faculty, and the students were simply tremendous. I won't miss the heat, or Ken Cuccinelli, but it's been a great year.