ASO: Robert Spano with David Coucheron

I debated whether or not to go to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert last night. I’m still in the mourning period for my mother and, according to tradition, I’m supposed to avoid listening to music. However, doing so was starting to make me feel like a prisoner to my grief and, besides, there are a few other rules that I have set aside due to practical concerns. The concert was very good so I’m glad that I did go.
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ASO: Robert Spano with Jorge Federico Osorio

The first piece on the program was Krists Auznieks’ Crossing. Aside from a few pieces that I found online when I looked him up earlier this week, I don’t believe that I’d ever heard anything by him so I really didn’t know what to expect. It turns out that I was absolutely delighted by this piece. It started kind of like an overture to some pastorale and I got an image in my head of a protagonist going out onto a meadow to do a Maria-Hills-Are-Alive thing but then tripping and falling. They get back up and try again only to run into a cliff face. So they turn another direction and find that they’re wandering out of the meadow and onto rocky, unpleasant terrain. Through obstacle after obstacle the protagonist tries to stay positive and to do their little turn in the meadow but a sinister undertone grows underneath their theme and things keep going in a different direction. Eventually the protagonist hits their breaking point and has a “What new hell is this?!” moment where they can no longer maintain a positive outlook. By the end they are defeated, reliving a dark, warped vision of the whole thing in their broken mind. It was such an evocative piece that I found myself smiling and suppressing chuckles in the early parts of the piece and by the end I was really concerned for my imaginary protagonist whom Auznieks was leading into such a miserable place.
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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 Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, Laura Ardan, Andrew Brady, Brice Andrus, & Jeremy Denk

This weekend’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured good performances of works that aren’t necessarily my favorite. It opened with Gandolfi’s Imaginary Numbers. When I first heard it in 2015, I thought that it had some interesting ideas but that a concerto for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn wasn’t entirely the best thing ever. I felt more or less the same way this time: I did enjoy it and appreciate the performances by ASO principals Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, Laura Ardan, Andrew Brady, and Brice Andrus; but I frequently just felt that the music wasn’t quite taking me anywhere.
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ASO: Robert Spano with Daniel Hope, David Finckel, and Wu Han

Last night’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was particularly festive. The concerto for the evening was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and the triplets for this performance were Daniel Hope, the associate artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival, along with David Finckel and Wu Han, who are the founding artistic directors of Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival. Robert Spano, the music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, conducted. Even the concertmaster, David Coucheron, is the Artistic Director of the Kon Tiki Chamber Music Festival. This program will be performed again tonight at the Savannah Music Festival. With that much festivity on one stage, there really should have been a lot more sequins.
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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 Johannes Moser

Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert was proceeded by a chamber recital featuring three pieces. First was Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. It’s a good set of pieces and it was played well enough, though I found nothing exciting or exceptional about either the works nor the performance. The next piece featured the first three movements from Smetana’s String Quartet no. 1 with the order of the second and third transposed. This was performed by the Peachtree String Quartet. It’s a good piece but I found the performance a little weak around the parts that required slow and quiet playing. In particular, I felt that the second violin failed to maintain a good sound with his bow wandering up and down the strings. In terms of musicianship, I felt that the final piece was the best played and I ended up enjoying it the most of the three. Arthur Berg’s Woodwind Quartet in C Major came across as particularly upbeat following the Smetana; even the adante middle movement was kind of uplifting. I found myself feeling like it was a delightful shelf upon which to rest my mind while waiting for the orchestra to begin playing the main program for the evening.
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