Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Ludwig shows his dark side

I arrived at approximately 7:05 PM to see our "Town Meeting" at which the VSO's 2008/2009 season, Music of Our Time, would be unveiled by New Music Advisor David Ludwig, Music Director Jaime Laredo and Executive Director Alan Jordan. One moment Jaime is talking about the October program, the next moment, the lights are out. David Ludwig doesn't miss a beat joking, "We didn't want to leave you in the dark" [about our forthcoming season]. David has promised to become a prolific VSO blogger, with a series of posts detailing his work composing the double concerto to be premiered next season, his work in Vermont schools under the auspices of our SymphonyKids educational outreach program, as well as whatever wacky events happen in between...such as a power outage during a pre-concert talk at the Flynn on Saturday. David reflects...

I am sitting in a little inn in the middle of Vermont. It’s one of these wonderful places laid out like a chalet where they bring you cider and cookies while you sit by the fire and blog about being a composer…

But rather than talk about myself, which I will surely do in upcoming installments here, I thought I would write about my experiences with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra from the past couple of days. These times have been unique.

Last night was supposed to be a sold out concert for the VSO in Burlington. The program at the Flynn center was my oboe and string orchestra piece called Radiance, the Sibelius violin concerto played by my old friend Soovin Kim, and Schumann’s 3rd Symphony (the "Rhenish") for the second half. It looked to be a good program and I was so looking forward to having my piece played. For most composers, having an orchestra play your music is an event—I hope that I never get too used to so many people up there all pouring their hearts into playing my music. It’s an awesome feeling.

Just before concert time, we held a press conference on stage for interested regular audience members (the “we” was myself, as moderator and Composer-in-Residence and New Music Advisor for the symphony, Music Director Jaime Laredo, and Executive Director Alan Jordan.) What we announced was the new season for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary (which will be celebrated over two years). The reason I was involved in this specifically was because there is a vision behind the programming for next season that makes it very special—the season is only to feature music written since the inception of the orchestra. We were pretty strict about that, too. As we were going through possibilities to go on Masterworks concerts, lots of things were struck down because they were written just a few years before 1935.

I think this season is a big deal, and I think it’s going to get national attention for the orchestra. And it’s a funny thing, because people not in the know would wonder why there would be any particular excitement or trepidation about it. Isn’t it strange that classical music institutions might need courage and foresight to program music written during the lifetimes of the majority of the population? What other art is like this, where there is such a perceived disconnect between the music of our time and the audiences of our time?

Really, that disconnect is only a matter of perception, and when we announced dances from “West Side Story,” and music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” there were collective affirmations from the audiences—a field of “mm’s” in the rows of seats. Like so many things in life, once you realize that the territory is familiar after all, it’s a lot less scary. The orchestra is doing a number of absolutely contemporary pieces, too, including a double concerto I’ll be writing for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson. In the context of all of these wonderful 20th century works, the new pieces take on an interesting place in the programming. Everything becomes fresh and exciting to hear; works like Barber’s Capricorn Concerto become the standard rep and the pieces written in the 21st century become opportunities to hear music that no one has ever heard before. The audience clearly saw it that way too, and they offered assurance and enthusiasm. We can get so worried about what people will think when we try something new, and for sure the Vermont Symphony is showing a certain kind of bravery in this, given what the classical music world has become. But maybe we can give our audiences some credit for having open minds and ears. This season will bring newness to Beethoven in the next season, too.

In Beethoven’s time, the scene was vastly different, and not just because there was no heat in the hall (that wouldn’t fly in Burlington). Concerts in those days would be all new music, with one older piece (maybe forty years old?) put on as a curiosity or something different. How much this has reversed since then! Is the audience dying out? Is this generation of older listeners going to eventually disappear and we’ll be left with nothing? Is classical music—how I don’t love that term “classical”—is classical music dying, too? We know that music education has suffered, and we all know that improving this is the silver bullet to improve the status of the art, but there is an audience now, and it is resolute and devoted. Many have written about the sky falling in the next fifty years, but I am positive about it and excited for what is to come. I think the devotion of this audience and the vision of orchestras like this one will bring in an ever-stronger time of love and appreciation for our music, and ever more music of our time. I believe that contemporary music will bridge this generation of listeners to the next, and I’ll explore how in upcoming writing here.

As for the concert, well…it was cancelled. An ice storm of the kind that only Vermonters (and a select few others) know put the power out all over town and at the Flynn. But before it was cancelled Soovin went out in front of the audience to play the Bach Chaconne. He is from Plattsburgh, and a bunch of his admirers (there are many!) drove the long way around Lake Champlain specially to hear him. In the dark, the audience kept pouring in, directed by the flashlights of volunteers. And the orchestra had taken the stage too, everyone seated with their instruments in hand, ready to take up playing if the lights should come back on. So we all sat or stood there in silence and in the near blackness, listening diligently to Soovin’s heroic fiddling. No one stirred to take off their coat or find their phone. No one talked to their neighbors or unwrapped those (@#$%ing) mints in the extra-loud wrappers. Just silence while Soovin played. And at the end there were tears and the whole audience of a thousand plus leapt to its feet, unable to see the soloist at all, but all ears, nonetheless. It was an incredibly moving experience—a musician giving to the audience an unexpected gift and the audience giving back with their most earnest applause.

Is it any wonder that I’m hopeful about the future of music?