A Visit to Vail, With Some Thoughts on Light Music

This past weekend, we enjoyed a lovely couple of evenings in Vail, CO; I gave a pre-concert talk before the New York Philharmonic performance Saturday night at the Bravo! Vail festival, and we were able to attend Sunday night as well.  Our “take” (beyond the tickets) was two nights in a frighteningly opulent luxury hotel, the Sebastian.  Beautiful scenery, puttering around Vail (including an impromptu jam with street musicians, one of whom handed me a mandolin), etc.: a highly enjoyable couple of days.  There is a ridiculous amount of music boiling up out of every corner, during the festival, and it isn’t just a matter of the likes of the New York Phil and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  The program book lists all kinds of other events, many free—piano recitals, string quartets, Broadway, Jazz, plus the various street ensembles.  A person could live like this.

We were on the lawn for both the Saturday and Sunday evening concerts, which afforded certain opportunities for observation.  First, even accepting the relaxed summer atmosphere, do Bravo! Vail officials really feel it necessary to thank the audiences to such an extent?  We have the best audiences, we only want to provide the best for our cherished audiences, etc.  Please—the quality of the festival assures that an assortment of superb musicians are playing for these people: orchestras, soloists, chamber musicians, etc.  Who should be thankful to whom, and for what, here?

Speaking of the audience: some aspects of their behavior made me wonder.

First: yes, we were on the lawn, so some noshing and sipping and informality is not only to be expected, it’s desired (especially if you buy the food there).  Beautiful scenery, without question.  There are, nonetheless, acoustic issues attendant on not having a shell, and I’ve heard that the musicians can’t hear themselves.  My thought would be that the scenery directly behind the musicians could be sacrificed for such a shell, so that the musicians have a better idea of what they’re doing.

Second: I particularly enjoyed seeing small girls putting on their own ballets to the music, and striking poses for applause; it seemed so joyous and unaffected and natural that it made me grin.  I enjoyed seeing some of the moms beaming affectionately at their daughters’ dance concerts, too; I’m sure that they were thinking of their own summers several decades ago.  For the unhappy moms who were bitterly nagging the girls to “sit down and keep quiet and behave” I have nothing to say beyond admiring the thoroughness with which they’ve missed every possible relevant point.  The kids were not talking or singing; they were dancing, on the lawn, because the music told them to.  This, Mom, is precisely what you brought them to experience.  If your kids aren’t making noise but are being physically expressive and your neighbors are disapproving, either ignore them or stare them the hell down.  You’re on a lawn hearing music, so your little ones’ dances are the right answer.  If your child’s self-expression still makes you uncomfortable, get a f—ing grip.

Third, the inattention.  Yes, I know about the in-class rudeness and web-browsing and so on that we academics tolerate from inexperienced or entitled young’uns, and there are ways of educating said young’uns about such behaviors.  There is a special place in hell, though—and I hope it’s stuck between two levels so there’s absolutely nothing going on there—for people who leaf through magazines or mess with their E-Mail on their iPhones while live musicians are playing music.  It’s not a recording or a radio broadcast, you geniuses, it’s live music, and that’s a gift, something very special happening in real time.  If you are of the economic class that can expect live humans to entertain or divert you as often as you like whether you acknowledge them or not…well, how nice for you.  Now, how about being a mensch and showing some respect for the musicians trying to reach you?  You’re not in your living room, and there’s a difference between live music and a recording on in the background.  This is an Event, and should be appreciated as one.

The performance context led me to muse on other issues.  Because I teach this repertoire, I noted the programming choices; part of my reactions in this area are informed by my father’s love of “light classical” music, the melodious repertoire from his youth and the KFAC-Los Angeles playlist in the 1960s and 70s.  (I was quite far along in my musical studies when he finally admitted, rather resentfully, to finding Mozart boring, liking only a few Bach pieces, etc.  He even once asked a revered professor of mine, “Why don’t you teach any Ethelbert Nevin?”)  So even leaving such Fluffmeister as Ketèlby and Nevin aside, customary outside-summer-concert standards include such things as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, which I heard this weekend (the retiring concertmaster Glenn Dicterow giving what might be his final performance of that solo).  The piece is of course well known; from among the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights, Rimsky chose Sinbad’s Ship, the Festival at Baghdad, the Young Prince and Princess, a Shipwreck, etc., separated by a archetypically orientalist violin motive symbolizing Scheherazade, the princess telling stories for dear life.  The Russians, with their colorful orchestration, characteristic harmonic and melodic vocabularies, and sense of drama, are major players in the light music arena.  Or used to be.

Heretically enough, I found myself wondering how important it is, ultimately, that Youth Today or anyone else know these stories, even though it means knowing how to listen to the piece.  Sinbad?  The wreck of a sailing ship?  It is not really fair to complain about people finding that kind of thing irrelevant.  People elevate their noses in distaste at concert performances of film music, but I’m not sure it’s that different—I’ve never heard Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings symphony, but I enjoyed the music in the films and know the story inside-out and many are in the same position.  Would Shore’s Tolkien music be somehow less appropriate for lighter, easier concert listening than the entertainment repertoire of a distant culture from long ago… something based on the orientalist dreams of nineteenth-century Imperial Russia, or on fairy-tale Spain?  Let’s be honest; do these things really work as well when we are far more likely to know actual people from these countries, when we hear them talk on TV and even can even see webcams in their countries…how, then, are we to understand the exotic vocabularies the originated in the anxieties and preoccupations of centuries past?

I found myself wondering if, ultimately, it isn’t the aggressive support of orchestral composition competitions, commissions, Foundation grants and so on that are needed to revitalize more general interest in the orchestra, wind ensembles, and cultivated music in general, it’s a more thriving light music scene.  The canon ye shall always have with you, I think, and I see no shortage of crazed die-hard students who want to master these instruments to play it.  Where is the orchestral music that people—lots of different kinds of people—will flock to go hear, and would encourage their kids to play?

It seems to me that the last such work, really, was Rhapsody in Blue.  That’s 1924, Brothers and Sisters; our most familiar and beloved orchestral work is almost a century old.  That isn’t because the orchestra itself is irrelevant; it is because those composing light music find themselves pandering, because they don’t really understand the popular culture on which they draw (e.g. John Rutter’s Beatles Concerto).  Far rarer are the composers who can find that golden middleground where high quality music meets sheer, finger-lickin’ listenability, because they are completely at home with vernacular and cultivated cultures both—Brahms or Dvořák, for example, or Vaughan Williams.

The living light music tradition has gone into eclipse—irrelevant to the point that people see nothing amiss in considering the lighter pieces from a century and more ago to be legitimate audience-pleasers.  Result: even the light-music concert leans toward ritual, younger audience members find something else to do while it’s all going on (though applauding desperately at the end), and real cultural relevance seems more and more distant.

This is not an impossible situation to rectify.  How many composers, though, have mastered the skill—or even made a goal—of maintaining high quality while seeking, first and foremost, to please and delight an audience, rather than expressing their, y’know, griefs and existential doubts, or making a statement, or confronting the audience with its I-don’t-quite-know-what?

Imagine soloists and orchestras fighting to perform your music, which a certain number of your fellow composers consider to be nekulturni (no jealousy there, of course!).  Imagine the success of your lighter works provoking musicians to investigate your other, less accessible compositions.

Just sayin’.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to A Visit to Vail, With Some Thoughts on Light Music

  1. Erin Fulton says:

    I played an orchestral concert last weekend that included reasonably well-received canonical heavyweights, but the piece to which the audience seemed to react most favorably was Márquez’s “Danzón No. 2.” It’s not as though that piece necessarily has programmatic associations more accessible than, say, nineteenth-century exoticism; the sheer exuberance, however, aimed to please, and hit the mark. Perhaps this sort of piece represents the light music of the present, or at least the relatively recent past?

  2. jonathanbellman says:

    That’s odd—do have to “approve” this for it to print?

    Erin, I just listened to Dudamel conducting that piece with the Simon Bolivar Symphony (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA7vEIj6Lzk): and that’s a great example of what I mean. Light in tone but with sweet textures, delicious solos, and it’s over in ten minutes. I also really like Paul Schoenfield for just plain great listening. If this repertoire were more “in the air,” I think, casual listeners would be more excited about going to hear a live orchestra play the tar out of it.

  3. Chris Smith says:

    “It is because those composing light music find themselves pandering, because they don’t really understand the popular culture on which they draw.” Nailed it, Boss. Or, even worse, they don’t actually like the popular culture’s music.

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