Popularizing the Classics

by Sedgwick Clark

In a thought-provoking article in the August 25th issue of The New Republic, Philip Kennicott addresses the crisis of American orchestras. “How an effort to popularize classical music undermines what makes orchestras great,” reads the deck. What exactly does “popularize” mean, and what will it undermine?

Is it “popularization” for the New York Philharmonic to play two pre-subscription season film-music programs in tandem with the films — the first being excerpts from five Hitchcock films (8/17 & 18) and the second a complete showing of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Alan Gilbert conducting the classical foreground score (8/20 & 21)? Or is popularization driving Carnegie Hall’s opening-night mix (10/2) with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Seguin: classical bon-bons by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, and Ravel, with Josh Bell as soloist, followed by Esperanza Spalding in new arrangements for double bass from her latest CD? Or would orchestral arrangements of pop music be attempts at popularization? Well, of course they are, and what of it? Did members of the Philharmonic sully their artistry when they moonlighted in Bernstein’s Deutsche Grammophon recording of West Side Story? No comment necessary.

All I know is that I plan to go to the pre-season NYPhil concerts because I love those films and their music, and that won’t stop me from going to several of the orchestra’s subscription concerts if I like the programs. I especially look forward to hearing the Hitchcock cuts in full orchestral dress. My major concern is whether the Philharmonic gets good copies of the films. Several years ago, John Williams led a concert of his film music at the Phil, and the film sources were washed out and grainy. (I was told when I complained to management that he brought his own films, tailored for the concert.) I’ll go to the Carnegie opening too, enjoy the “classical” selections of the program, and (if deadline permits) maybe even stick around for the Esperanza Spalding part. But I don’t think I’ll be attending a complete Spalding concert or the Philly playing arrangements of Bruce Springsteen hits. New Jersey Governor Christie can have my seat if that ever happens.

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