News on the boil in the World of Classical Music

Controversy and a milestone at the MET; Trouble in Atlanta

By Peter Alexander

It’s the unwatched pot that boils, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s been lots of boiling going on in the classical music world this fall.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

This summer I reported several times on the labor dispute that threatened to cause a lockout and the cancellation of the season for the Metropolitan Opera. Happily, the lockout was averted, but that has not kept the Met from being a center of controversy.

As part of their season, the Met had announced performances of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. This opera was composed in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound 69-year old Jewish American tourist whose body was dumped into the Mediterranean.

Klinghoffer protesters

Protesters outside the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center

The opera was originally created with the cooperation of Klinghoffer’s family, who later objected that it glorified the hijackers. Nevertheless, the opera has been performed uneventfully in several locations—but the Metropolitan is not just any opera company, and New York is always in the spotlight. And it is an especially important location for American Jews. So when Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that The Death of Klinghoffer would be featured on the Met’s Live in HD series broadcast live to movie theaters around the world, there were protests and loud criticism of the Met. The claim was repeatedly made that the opera, by humanizing, or glorifying (depending on your point of view) the killers, was anti-semitic.

Scene from 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Scene from ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eventually, The Death of Klinghoffer was dropped from the Live in HD broadcast series, but it remained on the Met season. It opened last Monday (Oct. 20), with a phalanx of protesters filling the Lincoln Center plaza, some minor disturbances inside the house, and generally glowing reviews for the work and the performance.

For anyone who cares about opera, or gives much thought to contemporary art forms, The Death of Klinghoffer has been a remarkable case study. Regardless of your personal opinion, the decision to write an opera on such a volatile contemporary subject, and the decision to produce it at the Met, are worthy of serious consideration and discussion. Rather than reconstruct what people who have seen the production have said, here are links to more about this remarkable opera and production.

Just about the best review and report of opening night was that written by Alex Ross for The New Yorker.  Anthony Tommasini wrote an even longer report in the New York Times.  And David Patrick Stearns had a slightly different take on the events for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are many more reviews. The Chicago Tribune complied a handy list of reviews and articles. Almost all are worth reading.

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

But not all the news from the Metropolitan Opera has been disturbing, or even controversial. This past weekend, James Levine conducted his 2,500th performance at the Met—a staggering number that is just about beyond comprehension. It is more than twice as many as the next most prolific conductor in the Met’s history, the long-forgotten Arthur Bodanzky. The milestone performance was Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro) Saturday night—only the 77th time he has conducted that particular work. (Those and other numbers from Levin’s remarkable Met career were reported by the New York Times.)

This would be a remarkable milestone for any conductor, but in Levine’s case, it is especially noteworthy since it was only two years ago that it appeared his conducting career might be over. But he has come back from serious injuries, and is back at work in the opera house—to the relief of his fans and fans of the Met who have a hard time imagining how anyone can follow him and maintain the reputation Levine has created for the Met and its orchestra.

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

While the Met was resolving a labor dispute and averting a lockout this summer, the Atlanta Symphony has been dealing with a lockout and at least a partial cancellation of their season.

The sticking point in Atlanta is the proposal by management to further cut the size of the orchestra, which had previously been reduced to 88 musicians from an original compliment of 95 players. As a means of fighting deficits, the management wanted full control of the orchestra’s size and proposed cutting the orchestra—largely by leaving positions unfilled—to 76 players. Both the players and the orchestra’s conductors said that the Atlanta Symphony, an honored ensemble that has counted Robert Shaw and Yoel Levi among its music directors, could not maintain it’s standing with only 76 players.

After a bitter battle that eventually led to mediation, this one issue seems to have brought all negotiations to a halt. After the 15-month lockout nearly closed the Minnesota Orchestra permanently, this is very disheartening news. The most recent news about the ASO comes from the Atlanta Arts and Culture Blog, here and here. Earlier articles from NPR and the Washington Post provide more of the background.

A second major orchestra lockout in only a few years is bad news for America’s musicians, and those who support them and their work. The only silver lining from here is that we are not facing a similar crisis in Boulder, and we still have great riches of orchestral music to chose from. But it is interesting background for the still unfolding issue in Denver, concerning the Colorado Symphony’s future in Boettcher Concert Hall—where the pot, watched or not, boils on.

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