Sunday, July 18, 2010

Instant gratification, flamenco and cultural hollowness

Recently I was at the wedding of two friends. The bride was a Spanish woman who comes from a family of flamenco dancers and teachers. Her mother, cousins and aunts are all initiated into the proud tradition of Spanish dance. At the reception we were all treated to a wonderful display of flamenco by the bride and her extended family.

Beyond the entertainment value of the dancing the revelation of this occasion was the respect shown by the younger women to their older relatives on the dance floor. The young dancers were all very talented and capable, but as the elder generation of women came to dance it was clear that there was something in their dancing that it takes a lifetime to learn, something that only people who had experienced some of life could understand and express. It was also something that the younger women clearly respected while knowing that they could only learn to master their danceform through decades of dedication.

But western society has become so dominated by a youth cult that we have lost sight of this extra something on display on this night. Fast, strong, youthful and beautiful bodies are all that count. Experience, patience, long-term dedication and devotion to a lifetime's project are not the kind of attributes that cut much ice today. Instant gratification, short-term thinking and the expectation that people in their early thirties should already have everything sorted have killed off lifetime achievements and left us with the hollowness at the heart of so much of our contemporary culture.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Grab for cash an admission of musical bankruptcy

The Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra with a wide and fascinating repertoire. Every year on New Year's Day it plays the world's most famous orchestral concert. This is also one of the most lucrative events in the classical music calendar. The global TV rights alone see to that.

But New Year's day comes but once a year. And so in recent years the orchestra has been mounting an outdoor concert in the grounds of the picturesque Schönbrunn Palace in June. So far so good. But why does the program have to be more or less the same old waltz fare that traditionally dominates the January concert? This year's Schönbrunn concert began promisingly enough with film music from John Williams' Star Wars score. But already the second number threw us back into the ballroom of the Strauss clan and their ilk.

The result is an admission of programming failure and musical bankruptcy. Of course an outdoor concert on a warm summer night needs toe-tapping favorites, but overloading the program with Viennese schmaltz tells the casual viewer at home that there is no entertaining classical music other than the same old waltz numbers. It is a pity when there is so much other great music for a balmy summer evening.

Gustav Mahler, 150 years old and a man of our time

Gustav Mahler's 150th birthday was celebrated yesterday. The great Austrian composer once predicted that his time would come and history has proven him right. His ten symphonies are now fixed stars in the international orchestral repertoire, despite their great technical demands on players and the financial demands on orchestra managements thanks to the large number of players required.

But as recently as the 1960s Mahler's music was still exotic and rarely performed. Many commentators have commented on parallels between Mahler's musical world and the spiritual needs of our world. The man himself, a complex mix of intense and demanding perfectionism and a touching fragility seems to resonate with our time. His struggle with religious belief makes Mahler familiar to us. He wants to believe but never quite succeeds.

The kaleidoscopic shifts in the music anticipate the cutting between scenes and camera angles in modern cinema. Mahler's integration of musical material from outside the world of "classical" music is a premonition of postmodernism

Gustav Mahler is 150 years old and yet an artist of our time. Many happy returns!