This Satuday evening I’m conducting a program that includes Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture, the Saint-Saens 3rd Violin Concerto and the Franck Symphony in D minor. It’s almost ten years to the day since I last conducted the Franck (that time around it was paired with the Ravel Pavanne pour une infante defunte and the Chausson Poeme for Violin and Orchestra).
The Franck is hardly obscure or unknown, but it was once a repertoire staple and these days is much more rarely heard. In fact, the vast majority of the orchestra this week are playing the piece for the first time. I think it’s a pity such a marvelous and effective piece isn’t done more often, but what is more worrying is that its disappearance from the repertoire seems to be part of a larger trend.
A few years ago I went to a talk by orchestra management guru Henry Fogel (former boss of the Chicago Symphony). Henry spoke a great deal about repertoire and programming- about the importance of new music, and about the importance of designing imaginative, provocative programs, but also about pieces like the Franck. He made the point that there was a great deal of music that had huge audience appeal, which was once heard regularly on subscription concerts which is now somehow not considered serious enough. At the same time, pops concerts have largely abandoned what we used to call “light classics” in favor of arrangements of commercial music from Hollywood, Nashville and Broadway.
The gap between serious and popular programming has become huge- and there is an absurdly vast treasure trove of appealing and important music that has been deemed too serious and old fashioned for pops concerts but to frivolous for subscription series. The upshot is a world where you can have a pops concert of tenth rate Country gobbledeegook programmed just after a festival pairing Carter and Bruckner, but not much in between.
The Franck is no cupcake of a piece- it’s like lovely French Bruckner (yes, I know he was Belgian born), rather long, quite dense and certainly serious. It’s just not-quite-serious enough to hold its place on the modern concert platform- I’m told that some opinion makers think his melodies are too naive. I think that for the Franck, as for a lot of the works that have similarly fallen out of the repertoire, part of the issue is that in these works, the performer’s creativity, personality and even whimsy is essential for making the piece work.
We’re quite used to composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich or Elgar , all of whom are well served by quite literal readings of the score. One’s personality as an interpreter is important and still comes through, but at the end of the day, if you are quite literal in your reading of a piece by Elgar or Mahler, you’ll get quite a good result. In my experience, a piece like the Franck needs an interpreter who is willing to take more risks with tempo and color. Charles Munch was the greatest advocate for the Franck, in my opinion- his performances certainly show a profound knowledge of everything Franck asks for, but Munch is anything but shy about moving it along where he thinks it is necessary or taking time to savor a delicious chord change. Compare that to over-reverent recordings where a conductor has tried to be absolutely strictly faithful to Franck’s score without stepping one inch beyond what is written- suddenly the music feels stodgy, ponderous and dull. Even badly played, Beethoven or Mahler’s works scream “this is great music!” but there is a lot of other music where a great performance can make good music a great experience, but a bad, or even merely ordinary, performance can make good music sound terrible.
In the greatest of the great music, my first job as interpreter is to try to understand why everything in the score is there, and why anything one might have excepted there but not found is missing. In a lot of music that is merely delightful, fun, wonderful or interesting, the performer needs to be a bit more assertive and a bit less reverent. Knowing whether you are dealing with good or great music is where interpretation gets tricky and dangerous.
I’m a collector of Borodin 2’s- it’s not a piece you would listen to for profound insights into the art of composition. It is a showcase for orchestra and conductor, and it can be a great one. However, it doesn’t show up often on concert programs these days.
Liszt tone poems, suites from ballets, Weber overtures, works by Niccolai, Suppé, Chabrier, Lalo, Saint-Saens- the list is long of classical works that aren’t considered quite serious enough for subscription audiences but are too serious for pops concerts. My teacher, Gerhard Samuel, was a great Mahlerian and a serious composer in the serial tradition. When he was appointed Associate Conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) under Dorati, his first suggestion was to program a series of operetta nights on Sundays.
Dorati said that this blurred the lines between classical and pops too much, and would damage the reputation of the orchestra. “If Samuel gets his operetta series, I quit!” he thundered
Gerhard got his series, and Dorati stayed. The series ran for several years using young, inexpensive singers, with simple stagings more or less improvised at the rehearsal on the edge of the stage. It was the most successful series the orchestra ran in those years. Most concerts sold out.
I’m sure there is still a vast untapped audience for classical music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that doesn’t look down on decadence, frivolity or luxury….
Some follow-up thoughts for this post….
1- Finding that line between music you treat with the utmost reverence and that you can, or should, be more interventionist is hard. Misunderestimate a great composer and you become one of those turkeys who re-orchestrated Bruckner or cut half of Rach 2.
2- The best way to avoid being Leopold Auer and having you name forever attached to a barbarous and ham-fisted set of cuts to the Tchaikovsky fiddle concerto is to start working on any new piece with the sort of thoroughness and spirit of enquiry you would bring to an acknowledged MASTERPIECE.
3- Only once you’ve lived with the piece, and, if possible, heard some performances, or best yet, done some performances, if you really feel like it needs the Ken Woods touch or the Maestro X touch, you can let loose.
4- Generally speaking, other than opera, I never cut a piece. Better to just conduct faster…..