When the PSO Makes Me Sad

Sat 02 December 2017 by psu

So as not to bury the lede under my normal wordy context-setting preface, let me start with the thesis: last night's production of The Creation at Heinz hall was bad. I'm not going to hide behind the normal set of mealy-mouthed relativistic claims that people tend to make about these sorts of things. I don't think this was just "not for me", or "an interpretation that I don't agree with." I think it was what might have been a great musical performance wrapped inside a shit-filled burrito of misguided staging, inexplicable re-contextualization and most of all a background "film" that would be the laughing stock of Youtube. Oh, there was also a disco ball.

When I finally got home from the show, I found that someone had sent me this link to a video on twitter of a dancing marionette by Alina Mertic and it was by far the best produced combination of video, staging and music that I had witnessed since 8pm that night. So that's where I am coming from here.

OK. Now we can dive into the wordy context-setting preface.

I have to imagine that there can't be a task much more daunting for a modern classical music organization than mounting a production of a two hour long 19th century church oratorio based around the Christian creation myth and the book of Genesis. Classical music is already disconnected from the aesthetic and musical frameworks of our time (i.e. how pop music works), and tossing the extra mystery of heavy liturgical texts into the mix can't help. People these days don't know church music. Even the most beloved of these pieces, Handel's Messiah, in our time tends to be performed at Christmas for some reason even though even a semi-atheistic barbarian like me knows that the piece is about Easter. In addition, even the more well rounded classical fans might only know three or four of the big church pieces (Mozart's Requiem, a couple of the big Bach pieces, maybe the Carmina Burana by Orff).

In this context I can understand the desire to provide a more modern spin on the production of a piece like The Creation. You want to provide people who have probably never heard the piece and who probably don't have much experience with 19th century church music something to watch while the orchestra and singers drone on for two hours. So on paper maybe some interesting staging and a cool background video sound like an idea worth pursuing. After all I am a well known advocate of symphony orchestras using light shows to liven up the odd Beethoven performance.

Of course, there are pitfalls.

  1. The music was not really written to be staged. So it can be tricky to make a staging feel integrated into the overall musical framework. The PSO has pulled this off before though. Last year they did the St. Matthew Passion this way and it was perfectly enjoyable.

  2. The music was really not written for video. I think writing music to be put under video and film is hard. Shooting a film to be played behind a performance of pre-existing music is probably harder. Having the film not get in the way of hearing the music while it plays over your eyeballs is even harder. Finally, integrating this video with the action that is happening on the stage is even harder.

And yet this is the problem that the PSO set up for themselves last night and I wish I could say they pulled it off. But they did not.

The main problem was the film. The film appeared to be trying to set up a hip post-modern subtext for the music and text of the piece. The text of the piece is about the Christian creation story, with a lot of direct quotes from the book of Genesis. The film oscillated wildly between more classical images of these things and what appeared to be winking attempts at subversive and/or political commentary using the idea of Man Destroying God's Creation to push various shallow agendas around. The result ended up playing more like a comedic satire of what was happening on stage than something that one could meaningfully integrate into the musical experience itself (should you really be going after belly laughs during The Creation? I should put that question to musicology twitter but it seems like a long shot). So, for no apparent reason we were treated to images of clear cutting forests, the factory farming of chickens, various floating plastic action figures including pairs of mating dolphins. There were also many shots of what I assume was the hand of the filmmaker manipulating these objects in shallow pools of water that to me could only reflect the depth of the connection between the film and the music.

The film, in other words, was horrible. The PSO should get their money back. It was so bad that I didn't even notice that the staging for the first part of the show wasn't too bad. Because you could not take your eyes off the trash fire train wreck going on above the stage.

The last part of the show covers Adam and Eve and was mercifully free of video. But I found the staging of this part of the piece to be strange. I guess I don't agree with the idea that to make this piece accessible what you do is stage it in a way that brings its elements to the world of Earth and Man. It's not clear to me that this is what the piece is about. It should presumably be more mythic, spiritual, and mysterious. It's probably not about a wedding dance under a disco ball and what a newlywed couple does while watching TV and surfing the Internet after work. Why does the Internet exist at all? Why does Adam have a job? The questions are endless.

Before going on I do have to say this: it's a testament to how strong the musical foundation of the Haydn is that all of that bullshit could happen on top of it and it still almost worked. There were a few stirring moments when you could forget about the shit burrito and just let the music wash over you. But only a few, and that was nowhere near enough.

This whole sad experience just serves to further illustrate the zombie status of classical music in the culture at large. The orchestras are scared to death (perhaps correctly) that they are increasingly irrelevant in the minds of "the youngs" and this causes them to go to desperate lengths to produce content that they think might bring those people, whoever they might be, into the theater. There are of course three problems with this overall scheme:

  1. The people doing these productions have no idea how to appeal to the audience that they seek.

  2. The shallow idea to use "new media" and production techniques (like video) runs into the problem that a large musical organization is good at playing music not producing video or even hiring others to produce it for them.

  3. The audience the PSO is after knows little about the product that the PSO might provide to them.

This most recent disaster makes me think back to all of the awful audience outreach events that now increasingly have to happen at the concert because apparently there is no other space in which one could provide instructional materials to people about the music that they just bought a ticket to hear.

A couple of years back there was the 15 minute lecture on Pictures at an Exhibition before the performance of Pictures. Just last month there was a 20 minute pre-performance lecture about the Shostakovich 5 with the orchestra playing live excerpts from the piece that they were about to play in five minutes.

Now I want you to think about any other musical performance that you have witnessed in the last ten years ... how many times did the performer come out on stage and explain to you the music she was going to play before just playing it? I don't mean some funny stage banter about how they wrote the lyrics on toilet paper while on tour or something. I mean an actual explanation for why you should find the piece interesting while you are sitting in the audience having already bought the ticket. I'm going to guess that you have never witnessed something as backward as this, ever, in your entire lifetime, unless you go to classical music concerts regularly. Can you imagine a world where you buy a ticket to go see Vince Staples, or Taylor Swift, or even some really old music like The Rolling Stones and the first thing they do is come out on stage and explain all the lyrics and the organization of the music and production to you before just performing the songs? No you can't. Why? Because if you bought the ticket you already know the music.

But for some reason this can't be true for the PSO. And so the battle is already lost. Apparently the PSO cannot assume that anyone who bought a ticket to the show is ready for the product that will be served. Instead the PSO thinks that they must assume that the paying audience is made up of school children who need to be spoon fed a picture of the piece before the concert starts, then again before the piece is played and then again when the piece is played for real. I am not here to pass judgement on the beginners. I am sympathetic to what they are going through, but I find the current treatment of them kind of patronizing.

In my opinion the long term result of this can only be retrenchment. The organization will inevitably shrink to reflect its actual relevance in the consciousness of the audience. I think there is enough of an audience to keep the music alive, but probably not in Heinz Hall, and maybe not with a hundred of the best professional musicians in the world. It will be sad when it goes away, and I will appreciate every great show that happens until it all falls apart. But, I am no longer optimistic that the falling apart is avoidable.

Notes

I still think the music was great, when you could pay attention to it. I found the soloists and chorus to be particularly impressive.

I guess if I had read this earlier I would not have bothered to go. Although I might have still been victimized since the piece does not say the "film" will be complete trash.

Here's a nice video from the later part of The Creation performed in a more traditional way. See how nice it is?

Still, here is a crazy dance version ... I wonder what that's like.

Finally, here is another modernist staging. I did not watch the whole thing to see if there were plastic dolphins having sex.

Category: Things