The new music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko, is receiving some flak for his opening concerts with the orchestra. He is too conservative with his programming. In the words of Alex Ross, critic for The New Yorker, “Conservatives in the orchestra and in the audience may be reassured, but this retrenchment is a troubling signal from a historically great orchestra that ought to be assuming a leadership role in global classical music.”
And here we go with the “new music is good music and new music is good for global classical music” opinion. First of all, what is global classical music? Does it refer to music composed by those outside the Western tradition? I really don’t know what the term means but apparently the Berlin Philharmonic should be taking a leadership role regarding whatever global classical music is.
How does a leader in global classical music act? Again, is it simply performing new music? I’d venture to say that what the Berlin Philharmonic ought to be doing is up to the Berlin Philharmonic.
Surely the Berliners knew what they were getting into when the orchestra voted Petrenko in. The orchestra players vehemently protect their right to choose the next music director each time the post becomes open, and they chose Petrenko.
Previously, Sir Simon Rattle had been at the helm for 17 years. Rattle took a progressive musical approach from the get-go and it’s completely possible that Berlin wants a break from the progressive music agenda.
What, you might ask, is a progressive music agenda? It is an agenda which, broadly speaking, attempts to eradicate the perception of hierarchical structures. I say “the perception of” because it is impossible to remove hierarchical structures from any human endeavor. It’s possible to swap one hierarchy for another but removing them altogether?
It’s been attempted. It didn’t go well.
To the hearts and minds of most classical music lovers, there is a clear hierarchy of music and composers. The top tier is occupied by those immortal names which everyone knows. Mozart, Beethoven, and J.S. Bach tend to be at the top of almost everyone’s hierarchy. The next tier down might be composers such as Haydn, Handel, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky etc. After that we get to Offenbach, Puccini, Donizetti, Copland — the tiers aren’t set in stone and are very personal but missing from almost everyone’s top three tiers are any living composers.
Composers such as John Adams, Philip Glass, and Thomas Adès might slip in there but that would be a rare case. What Berlin appears to be doing is restoring a sense of the clear hierarchy upon which the traditions of Western Classical music is based.
I, for one, like that.