ASO: Robert Spano with Joshua Bell

A rather lengthy explanation of why I decided to come in only after the performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was over.

There is no shortage of composers for whom we have textual evidence of antisemitism through either their correspondence or personal journals. Still, it doesn’t bug me when someone programs Robert or Clara Schumann’s work. I love Tchaikovsky’s work and enjoy Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition even though its program contains a nasty bit of antisemitism. I’m not a big fan of Chopin, but I don’t cringe when a soloist plays one of his pieces in an encore. I don’t judge Richard Strauss’ work based on the fact that he was actually a Nazi – albeit more out of opportunism than allegiance to the party ideology and he did actually work to protect some of the works of German Jews. There’s a difference between an artist and their art and, even if the artist may be interesting in their own right, I’m generally only interested in their work and tend to consider it mostly in terms of its impact on me rather than the person who created it. Similarly, I don’t care about the politics of the person who paved a road I drive on so long as they didn’t leave bumps, cracks, and potholes.

So, if I am fine separating the nasty utterances from the artistic output of the folks mentioned above, why did I decide not to enter the auditorium for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season premier until after Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg? Wagner goes beyond any of the people I listed above. He was not just an antisemite, but an anti-Jewish activist. He didn’t just gripe here and there about Jews or refer to the problematic “Jewishness” of this person or that; he actively tried to sway people’s opinions about Jews and to encourage excluding them from public culture. He republished Das Judenthum in der Musik a second time after he had gained his fame to this end.

Frankly, this is enough to make me want to avoid his music enough to leave at intermission if a program concludes with his work. But to rudely arrive late, it takes the performance of a piece like Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Above all of his other works of art, this is a particularly problematic one for me. While there is some debate about whether Wagner played on Jewish stereotypes in his operas, the one case that seems fairly unambiguous to me is the character of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. Even Katharina Wagner, director of the Bayreuth Festival and also his great-granddaughter, apparently conceded that this is probably true. Even this alone would not be enough for me to completely turn my back on decorum were it not for the ending: a direct appeal to Wagner’s brand of toxic nationalism with an explicit call to protect German culture from foreign influences. Here he seems to actually be talking about French influences, but should we care which cultures he’s trying to denigrate as evil? If I, an Ashkenazi who was born and raised in the Jewish faith with no cultural nor familial ties to France, decry an attack on my people and ignore a similar attack on another then I give up any claim to intellectual honestly. And, frankly, an insult in the form of caricature is less disturbing to me than a call to “protect” the purity of German culture from some perceived threat from people of other cultures who have the audacity to do something so evil as to share the gifts of their arts and sciences without threat or malice. I think that this is a horrible sentiment to bring to the stage in a time where people are cruelly lashing out against asylum seekers for a lot of the same reasons.

There has never been a shortage of Jewish supporters and apologists for Wagner. Even as he was publishing tirades against Jews, there were those who would happily work with the man and be his friend. This doesn’t change my opinion of his work in any way. It reminds me of an old college friend of mine who somewhat recently professed his belief in White supremacy and the right to segregation but who also has a number of Black and Latinx friends for whom he has very warm regards. Any number of them would vouch for his character as a helpful and kind friend. I would, too, but that doesn’t change anything about his moral failings. Here in Atlanta we have Tomer Zvulun, the head of the Atlanta Opera, who (I think) was the first to stage one of Wagner’s operas with the company. Lois Reitzes, producer and radio host at WABE, programmed his works when WABE still produced classical music programming (though I do concede that once, on his birthday, she did state that he was a horrible person, though she never actually discussed why he was horrible or why we should overlook that fact). And, of course, there’s Ken Meltzer, the program annotator for the ASO, who didn’t think it was necessary to mention any of the less savory aspects of Die Meistersinger in his notes. I am not one who would point the finger at these people and liken them to kapos or accuse them of giving in to Wagner’s call for Jewish self-annulment. But I can’t help but think of them as being similar to the Finnish Jews who served along side the Nazis in WWII: are they clueless as to the extent of Wagner’s transgressions? Do they believe that the music is just too important to let its meaning get in the way?

If I’m to be completely honest, I do not like Wagner’s music very much in and of itself. There are pieces that I consider pleasant, like the overture to Das Rheingold, but I consider most of it to be overbearing and obnoxious. Although my music education is fairly limited, I was taught that he was a great composer who revolutionized music and invented important musical techniques, such as the use of recurring themes to represent specific characters or ideas (leitmotiv) and the use of dissonant, unresolved chords to build tension (Tristan Chord). I later found out that both of these “inventions” predate him by quite a bit and, while trying to learn to like his work some time ago, I found that his use of gimmicks to try to elicit reactions for the audience generally undermined any sincere feeling that I might derive from his works. That said, I acknowledge that: a) I am not a musician nor a music scholar and, thus, may not have the background to understand what his contribution to the art form was and b) he has influenced a lot of great musicians to create great works. As such, I must also acknowledge that his work has value.

That leaves me with this question: is this value worth the dignity of the audience members before whom it is played? I think that reasonable people can disagree on this topic. However, I do not believe that it’s a topic that should go unaddressed. I really do think that the decision to program Wagner should come with an explanation as to why it is worth the insult as well as worth the risk of perpetuating Wagner’s philosophies. Personally, if the appeal of performing Wagner is just in the joy of performing/hearing his music then I do not think it’s worth the sacrifice. A lot of the best comedic writers of the time worked on blackface minstrel shows and, as such, I’m sure that they were incredibly entertaining despite the bigotry. Even so, most people would be rightly shocked to see such a show revived by a major theater company. Still, major companies stage Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Opera Companies and classical music organizations still consider Die Meistersinger acceptable. If the reason behind this does go beyond the mere pleasure derived from the music, why do I so rarely see this included in program notes? If we perform him to show how he influenced later musicians, why do I not see explanations of this influence when the other musicians’ works are performed? I find this problematic and I really do feel that too many organizations have put art before people when it comes to things like this. What value is left in the humanities when we stop caring about the human part of it?

I do not expect to convince anyone of anything in writing this. People have been protesting Wagner through both action and purposeful inaction long before I decided that I couldn’t bear him anymore. I write this merely as an explanation, perhaps moreso to myself than to others, about why I decided to enter the auditorium late even though I arrived at Memorial Hall a good thirty minutes before showtime. I did not do it to protest – honestly I doubt that anyone besides the ushers and the people upon whose toes I had to trample to get to my seat noticed and there was no reason for them to suspect why I wasn’t already in my seat. I did it because I value my dignity and, in a time where my President calls neo-Nazi’s good people, sitting through that specific piece by that specific composer was too much of a slight for me to bear.

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ASO: Robert Spano with Roberto Díaz

Thursday’s program for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began with two pieces that were making their Atlanta debut but, interestingly, had been conducted at their respective world premiers by Robert Spano. The first of these was Alex Turley’s City of Ghosts. The first thing that caught my attention was the diminished string complement: each section had only two musicians with the exception of the solitary double bassist. At first it came across as merely atmospheric, but it quickly became interesting. The strings seemed to be in the background of the piece, with the woodwinds and brass standing out, and occasionally would ease their way to the forefront. At times this was effective, like the strings were apparitions fading in and out of perception, but it often sounded like the dynamics were just off, as though we should have been able to hear the strings more clearly. I’m not entirely sure if this was due to Turley’s intent or a function of the conducting. It’s an interesting piece and reasonably enjoyable but the sense of imbalanced dynamics left me feeling a bit ambivalent towards it.
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ASO: Robert Spano with Jonathan Biss

I had high hopes for tonight’s ASO concert but, sadly, I was let down. I really like Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra. It has some good power and lots of exciting bits but doesn’t neglect pure beauty. It’s a great piece to show off the sections of the orchestra as well as the principals. There are a lot of really good musicians in the ASO and they have done a really great recording of it but, sadly, I don’t think that, taken as a whole, they met the challenges of the piece this evening. The principals were mostly great, though I think that I’ve found that I don’t like the sound of the new principal double bassist’s instrument. I think that the sound that I didn’t like last weekend was coming from it, though it wasn’t as bad tonight. During his solos, it had a bright and disorganized sound to it and I found that I could pick his sound out when he was playing in ensemble both during the Higdon and the Beethoven, which I couldn’t do with any of the other bassists. It was one of two things that I had a hard time believing that I was hearing this evening and it made me feel a little like I might be crazy or something and I’m wondering if I would be able to hear the detail that bugs me if I were sitting further away. Also, one of the percussionists didn’t quite match the quality of the others tonight, which really threw huge sections of the piece for me.
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