Friday, 13 May 2022

An All-Too Conservative JPO Symphony Season

Well, the JPO has released the “new” line-up for its Winter Symphony Season, and it invites concertgoers to a challenging game of spot-the-difference with any previous season. Actually, a more apt challenge would be to put the new programme next to one drawn up by a prudish and dowdy old spinster 100 years ago, and then guess which is which.

Okay, Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto was written only 96 years ago. The difference is that the spinster – enamoured of Rachmaninov as everyone always has been – would have cheerfully programmed the brand-new piece; the JPO can only love a composer when he himself (rarely she) is entirely de-composed. In my 5 years of attending JPO concerts as a dedicated subscriber, I have only heard about 30 minutes of music written by people still living; that’s about 1% of the music performed by the orchestra.

Of the eight major (multi-movement) works we’re getting this season, half are pieces we’ve already heard at JPO concerts since its 2017 re-launch (pieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Brahms). The other half are Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto, the Rachmaninov, and Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony. Are these by any means a broadening of repertoire? An expansion of discovery, inclusivity, or imagination?

The music of Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Brahms make up well over a third all the music I’ve listened to at JPO concerts. This is not only a narrow selection of countries and time periods but of individuals, and even a narrow selection within the output of each individual. Only the best-known and most reliable chestnuts are chosen to placate us listeners.

Don’t misunderstand me: I also think that the music of Beethoven, Mozart et al. is among the greatest of all music, and I don’t want to abandon it by any means. (Brahms’s Third Symphony, programmed for 30 June, is just about the most beautiful of all symphonies.) But I do get tired of entire seasons that rehash the same works and their immediate adjacents. It reinforces a conservative (and somewhat exclusionary) core, while an abundance of exciting and enlightening music lies untouched and unheard by the audience. (How I long for more of even well-known masters like Haydn, Verdi, Handel, Saint-Saëns…)

There have been (very brief) sallies into more modern music, but they represent a dispiritingly small proportion of works programmed, and an even smaller segment of the frontiers that music has crossed in the last century. The JPO doesn’t have to suddenly acquire fringe mixed-media performance art presentations by the anti-establishment avant-garde; but it can return to the occasional thrill of presenting newer classics, as it has with Korngold’s Violin Concerto, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Ravel’s Piano Concerto, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, or even Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, the first time it was programmed.

I know that the orchestra faces significant constraints; it can’t hire the billions of musicians required to perform each Mahler symphony, and the rights to pieces by living masters like Philip Glass and Thomas Adès may be too expensive (although imagine the large number of younger concertgoers that would be drawn by a Philip Glass piece). But there is a great wealth of modern classics that could both conceivably be performed by the JPO forces and relished by Joburg concertgoers – music like the rest of the symphonic output of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Korngold as well as the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Amy Beach, Florence Price, Benjamin Britten, Carl Nielsen, and Stravinsky. Can we in the audience be trusted to hear out works that have remained in the margins?

P.S. I note all of this before even coming to the question of the constant import of European (and a few American) symphonies, and the total neglect of African composers…

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