Anatomy of a flop

There are two reasons I don’t do reviews on this blog, much as I might be tempted. The first, and most compelling, reason is that I am aware of what a big, beautiful glass house I live in, and secondly, I don’t particularly want to piss people off in my field. Practicalities aside, I think that too many reviews are really summary judgments- judgments passed on great composers’ works and on great performers performances, and who are we to pass judgment on the artistic work of others. Still, not all events can be successful, and analyzing what caused a project not to succeed can be a very rewarding and useful process, and in the last 24 hours I had the stimulating pleasure of attending two events that both seemed to fall well short of expectations. The second of these was the exhibition “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction” at the Tate Modern. In spite of the crowds, the Tate Modern is one of my favorite places just to be- I’d love to work in a concert hall that felt like it. Kandinsky is one of my favorite painters- probably a favorite of most musicians. It was the one thing I was absolutely sure I wanted to do in London this week- I was sure it would be a pig in sh*t moment for me. 


Well, as it turns out, simply arranging a bunch of pictures by one artist in chronological order with background information (audio guide or captions) for only a quarter of them is not a very satisfying or stimulating way to present art. Even when the paintings are fantastic and important. 

Imagine the contrast from the Hayward exhibit on Surrealism that I went to on Sunday, which was so wonderfully and thoughtfully put together. In it, each piece was connected to all the others. Influences and conflicts were underlined and explored, context was established, and each work was illuminated. We weren’t told what we were looking at, we were told how it was conceived, how it was inspired, what impact it had on other artists and thinkers, and where the artist went from there. The entire exhibit took us closer to the generative ideas behind each of it’s parts.

On the other hand, at the Kandinsky show, most of the audio guide told us things like “there is a yellow circle in the lower left-hand corner, and four black lines running diagonally left-to-right.” For me there was consistently too much description and very little analysis. We were told Kandinsky was part of the Blue Rider group, something most of his fans already knew, but we weren’t told who else was, or what they believed. We were told that he was deeply interested in physics and spirituality, but we weren’t told which scientists and philosophers interested him. We were told that music was a big influence on his approach to painting, and even told about his chromaestesia, or musically triggered visions of color. However, the exhibition organizers made fundamental, basic technical errors in their discussion of music. They spoke of Schoenberg as the innovator of the 12 tone scale instead of the 12 tone row, and then used a freely atonal piece, the first op 11 Piano Piece as an example of his music- the implication being that it is an example of 12 tone composition, which it is not, even it was an influence on Kandinsky. Not only could they have gotten their facts correct, they could have unearthed some of Schoenberg’s own paintings or his writings on visual art. They could have showed his sketches or an analysis of how a row works. 

Kandinsky also painted works he called “Fugues,” and the audio guide for the Fugue in question played the Prelude in C Major from the Well Tempered Clavier while describing a fugue- WHY NOT PLAY A FREAKING FUGUE?!?!!?! Worse yet, they gave a meaningless and incorrect definition of a fugue as being a musical work in which a single theme is put through several variations (I paraphrase from memory, sorry). Any poor non-musician would have left with a barrel of fresh mis-information and a totally confused idea of both this one aspect of music, and of this aspect of Kandinsky’s paiting.We found out that he was in love with someone, and then later that they broke up, but we never found out why. We knew he liked putting a rider on horseback in his paintings and were told to look for him, but weren’t told when he showed up again. We were told he was influenced by the constructivists in Russia, but saw only scans of their work. Why not bring it together.   

Anyway, for me the obvious personal parallel is in programming and in how we present concerts. Just as even the greatest paintings benefit from context and illumination, surely Beethoven 9 or Thcaik 5 deserve the same treatment. Most of my programs have some little theme in them, but should we be trying harder to make the concert a more coherent event. I thought Underground Surrealism was way more fun than Kandinsky, and I like K’s stuff more than Dali (but not Picasso). Sometimes I think orchestras make the mistake of thinking that Mozart or Rachmaninoff will win the audience over no matter what, but a performance ought to be an act of illumination- a great concert is not only a pleasure to the senses, but a chance to share in the communication of meaning.

Telegraph feature

Guardian feature

Guardian review

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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