Will MTT Be TV's New Bernstein?

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Ralph
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Will MTT Be TV's New Bernstein?

Post by Ralph » Tue Oct 31, 2006 1:27 pm

October 31, 2006 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters > Printer-Friendly Version
A Classical Education
Classical Music

BY FRED KIRSHNIT
October 31, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/42613

In November 1954, the young Leonard Bernstein appeared on the program "Omnibus" standing on a gigantic score of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. He began the program by pointing to the opening four notes with his shoe. As he explained the creative process and Beethoven's struggles, Lennie illustrated his talk by playing the piano and by having members of the Symphony of the Air play passages while seated at their particular line on the larger than life music paper, with the camera shooting from high in the studio rafters.

Classical music is much more marginalized now, at least in American life, and any appearance on television is to be enthusiastically celebrated. This week PBS will begin screening "Keeping Score," a video journey by a protégé of Bernstein and a committed music educator, Michael Tilson Thomas. The program, which features Mr. Thomas leading his San Francisco Symphony, has a corollary Web site and a guide for teachers. Altogether it is a noble experiment, albeit a flawed one.

On the surface, Mr. Thomas seems to be the best possible candidate for this assignment. He is obviously deeply motivated by his mission and extremely enthusiastic for the opportunity. His success in San Francisco lies largely upon his likability and his community outreach, and over the years he has become somewhat of a local celebrity whose fame transcends his art. Like Kurt Masur in Leipzig, Mr. Thomas would be a sure winner if he wanted to run for office.

Mr. Thomas does a fine job explaining the historical context of these pieces, going to St. Petersburg to discuss why a Russian work like Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" had to have its premiere in Paris. He is also adept at demystifying Nijinsky's choreography for the work. But when he tries to explicate the music itself, he takes too much for granted. His casual employment of such terms as "unison harmonics" and "ostinato" may leave his viewers diving not for their Groves dictionaries but rather for their remote controls. By contrast, when Bernstein talked to his audience, which consisted of small children, he did not shy away from sophisticated musical terms or concepts, but always took the time to explain them so that his young disciples (and their parents) could understand them.

The common denominator of the "Keeping Score" programs is musical innovation, or, as Mr. Thomas insists, "revolution." Thus all three pieces presented in the early weeks — Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, and "The Rite of Spring" — are deemed revolutionary. A bit of an oversimplification perhaps, but if hyperbole is necessary for the propagation of the faith, then so be it. If even one listener becomes interested in serious art music as a result of this series, then everyone involved has achieved an admirable goal.

Mr. Thomas and his ensemble players, who often offer their own comments, are undeniably energetic about their proselytizing, but are somewhat slipshod in argumentative skills. Occasionally, the charismatic conductor will sit at the piano and play a chord or short passage, exclaiming how revolutionary it is. But unlike other programs of a similar ilk — Englishman Howard Goodall's "Big Bangs," which airs periodically on the Ovation network here in New York, for example — Mr. Thomas never presents any musical evidence to support his claims of one eureka moment or another. If he instead performed a measure or two of the "Eroica" and then followed it with some contextual passage from Haydn or Mozart, then neophytes might quickly see the wisdom of his remarks. Rather, he simply asks us to take his word for it.

And, more embarrassingly, the players of his orchestra try too hard to be contemporary. One describes the music as "sexy" while another exclaims, "It's like rock 'n' roll!" Gee, when they get around to filming the episode about Hector Berlioz and his "Symphonie Fantastique" — supposedly inspired by opium — they may be in danger of incurring a television rating of "MA" for mature audiences.

Still, spending time dissecting the classics should help to build an audience, especially since the shameful abdication of the American public school system has rendered the entire subject obsolete. It is often said that young people do not like classical music. This is patently untrue. Rather, it is simply no longer on their radar screens. The best orientation for classical music is in the home, which is why Eastern European and, increasingly, East Asian immigrants are better prepared to study such music at the conservatory level. Here's wishing Michael Tilson Thomas every success in his endeavors as we let him into our homes.

"Keeping Score" airs November 5, 12, and 19 on PBS.

October 31, 2006 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters
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Post by Stonebraker » Wed Nov 01, 2006 2:14 pm

I stumbled across the keeping score on my HD tv, and set a DVR to record all new episodes. I have the Copland and Beethoven's Eroica on my DVR(DVR is like Tivo, for Cable TV), and I enjoyed the Copland, but I haven't watched the Eroica yet, as I'm not very familiar with that piece. I know, I know, how can I not be familiar with Eroica, but give me a week or two.

All in all, I think it's a great program. I'm biased, as the SF orchestra is one of my favorites, and MTT one of my favorite conductors based soley on what I think is consistent greatness regardless of the composer, time period, type of work, etc. Then again, I'm not the most skilled listener yet.

Anyways, I would suggest checking this program out. I like the "Great Performances" program better so far, but that's because that program has played a few more things im familiar with.
Paul Stonebraker - Promoting orchestral music since '06

jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Wed Nov 01, 2006 4:18 pm

Michael Tilson Thomas, whom I remember as an adult conductor from boyhood, will turn 62 in December. That, er, is not a rerun of Bernstein.

I disagree with the premise of the article that classical music needs to be rescued by a superannuated boy wonder. The future of classical music lies at the grass roots, with hard working teachers passing on a tradition which has always been against all odds and that is increasingly less supported by public school education.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by pizza » Wed Nov 01, 2006 6:54 pm

62 or not, I remember him as a kid pianist and kid conductor and to me he's still a kid!

The gist of the article isn't so much that classical music will be rescued, but rather that it wouldn't hurt to expose the uninitiated to it, mostly youngsters, by way of a guy to whom they can easily relate. It's a good idea if he can hold the interest of both the audience and the program's producer.

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Post by ichiro » Wed Nov 01, 2006 9:34 pm

I just went to the project's webisite keepingscore.org, and it has a really neat web browser that breaks down the score of the Eroica with video clips, illustrations using the score, and background on the history of the piece. It's really neat!

Granted, it's not a complete analysis of the piece, but it strikes a good balance between introducing a novice to Beethoven and catering to the musically knowledgeable. It's kind of a companion to the documentary MTT is doing.

There is also a similar web browser for the Tchaikovsky's 4th symphnony, done earlier this year.

I really applaud this kind of interactive approach, as it shows Tilson Thomas' passion for music while using the Internet as a great tool.

jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Wed Nov 01, 2006 9:43 pm

pizza wrote:62 or not, I remember him as a kid pianist and kid conductor and to me he's still a kid!
Yes, well....

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

pizza
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Joined: Fri Mar 25, 2005 4:03 am

Post by pizza » Thu Nov 02, 2006 2:05 am

jbuck919 wrote:
pizza wrote:62 or not, I remember him as a kid pianist and kid conductor and to me he's still a kid!
Yes, well....
Well, it's decided; he's a kid.

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