Does the Phil Care About Selling New Music?

I got a marketing e-mail today from the New York Philharmonic pitching the 2011-2012 season.

Since taking the podium at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has been noted for his promotion of new music (or at least “newer” music). The Times (of London) wrote in January 2010:

For the moment, however, Gilbert resembles a more controversial figure in the orchestra’s past. Pierre Boulez enjoyed confronting the world’s most conservative audiences with the world’s most modern music, resulting in a string of critical successes and box-office failures. Since then new music has been kept at arm’s length. Until now.

“New music wasn’t presented in the best possible light in the past,” Gilbert admits. “It wasn’t clear why the orchestra was playing it or whether the orchestra really believed in it.”

The “Boléro effect”, as he calls it, which says that if you put a piece such as Ravel’s Boléro at the end of a programme you can slip anything else in earlier in the evening, was all too common. “You may be able to get people to buy tickets this way, but the clear message it sends out is that we don’t really believe in this,” he says. “It says: ‘Deal with it and we’ll get on to the fun stuff later.’ That is not a message we believe in.”

Which brings us back to the marketing e-mail. It leaves me with the impression that the new music is backed with something less than the full faith and credit of the New York Philharmonic. The Phil’s Phlacks write:

The new 2011-12 season of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic has been announced! It is no less than a feast of musical masterpieces — three Mahler symphonies, a festival of Beethoven symphonies, Mozart’s Mass in C minor, and much more — plus exciting premieres from the composers of today.

If new music is important, it’s important enough to give us a name. “Exciting premieres”? This breaks the basic rule of writing: Show don’t tell. Who are these exciting new composers? The copy doesn’t persuade me. If the composers’ names aren’t worthy to stand alongside Mahler, Beethoven, and Mozart in the marketing e-mail—not as equals necessarily, but at least with a second billing that mentions their names—why should we be excited about them?

As for myself, I’m hoping to hear them do Leos Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in June.

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