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On the Arts: Audacious programming deserves adventurous audience

Sunday, March 11, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod

Does the arts community here and nationwide take itself too seriously? I've often wondered. Plans for upcoming seasons or new projects are sometimes guarded like civil defense secrets. Public access to artists often seems less likely than with politicians. Rumors of artists and administrators leaving or coming are often denounced with a vehemence.


Andrew Druckenbrod is the Post-Gazette classical music critic.


There are some good reasons for this, to be sure. In the case of classical music, for instance, the competition to secure guest artists, music directors or new commissions demands discreet behavior. But we're not racing to build the bomb here. A little openness might help all of us understand the stresses and constraints we're under.

A little openness is exactly what I got in September, compliments of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

A few weeks after I took the PSO to task for not programming adventurously enough for the present season -- especially with regard to new music -- I got a call from managing director Gideon Toeplitz. He said he agreed in some respects that the orchestra needs to push the envelope further, and he and music director Mariss Jansons invited me to attend one of their artistic planning meetings for the 2001-02 season. They wanted me to see firsthand how many hoops they must jump through to accommodate contemporary works.

Wow. That invitation was the equivalent of a sportswriter being asked to sit in on preliminary Penguins trade talks, or a business writer getting access to the boardroom of a company considering a buyout. It's not a typical environment for journalists, not with our peculiar habit of spreading what we hear to ... well, everybody.

So, on the condition I wouldn't write about the new season until it was publicly released, I agreed to attend the meeting. In late October, I stepped into Jansons' Heinz Hall suite with Toeplitz, artistic administrator Bob Moir and resident conductor Edward Cumming. I was given a tentative plan for the season, and I looked on as the group discussed the selection and placement of repertoire. (The roster of performers already had been largely set.)

Journalists are cynical by nature, and I suspect Toeplitz and Jansons hoped to gain my sympathy regarding the complications of mapping out a season and adding new music. Given that programming is a difficult chore for every orchestra, my opinion didn't change much. But I was impressed that they opened the door to the "enemy," as the critic is called in the film "Almost Famous." It showed a level of trust on their part -- no doubt reflected in their desire to help me understand the programming process more fully.

I've already acknowledged my natural skepticism, but I felt their efforts were sincere and that they didn't change the meeting much -- if at all -- for me.

I've also acknowledged the bias I carried into that room: I believe the PSO needs to take more risks in its programming, even as I concede the difficulty in selling new music to a largely traditional audience in a conservative town. We debated this early in the session when Jansons read off the low attendance numbers for the new music concerts of past years.

But no one is asking the canon to be thrown out. If the PSO is determined to keep art music relevant and in the present, it will happen.

As the meeting went on and I read over the sketch of the 2001-02 season, I began to wonder why we were debating at all. Here was a guarded but strong step forward to making this orchestra more artistically relevant from a programming perspective. Announced two weeks ago, the PSO's upcoming season has 14 of 61 works by living composers, 28 written in the 20th century or beyond. It also boasts an abundance of premieres -- four, to be exact, which is the most since 1995-96, the PSO's centennial season. Also announced was a "composer of the year" in Rodion Shchedrin.

This is the season I wanted to see this year. It has a fair share of outstanding artists and is far closer in quality of programming to the artistic level that befits this world-class orchestra. It is adventurous but not irresponsible. The 2001-02 season finds the PSO poised to make an impact on the world scene with its repertoire, not just its performances. It is now more in tune with the tenor of the time, mixing the classics of the modern age, the classics of the traditional repertoire and the living music of today.

I would not have cast a new "composer of the year" program around Shchedrin and might have tweaked a few other things, including using different composers. But the new season wisely continues the relationship with composers Michael Hersch and Christopher Rouse while bringing in such noted composers as Sofia Gubaidulina, Peteris Vasks and Wolfgang Rihm, who have been staples elsewhere.

The PSO has done its part by making a confident move in the right direction. How successful it is depends on the audience.

That means you.

The 2001-02 season should fit right in with a city that is coming up to date on many fronts, from sports stadiums to tech jobs to Downtown amenities.

You don't have to like every piece of new music. But let's be honest: No one enjoys all the classics, either. It's often said that critical opinion and popular opinion rarely take the same path, but this season should please both if patrons here take a risk themselves and seriously sample this new music. The great works of classical music have no future if we aren't tending to the new and cultivating contemporary art.

The artistic crew seated in Jansons' office that day deserves credit for pushing through all those familiar roadblocks -- attendance concerns, patron preferences, tradition -- to create a 2001-02 season that gives new music a platform.

Here's hoping they don't let up down the road.

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