Wednesday, September 10, 2014

the worst classical concert blurbs ever written

They were issued by the old San Jose Symphony in the brochure for the 1986-87 season.

I dug these out of an old apazine, where I'd first reprinted some of them, because it's fall and a mumbledy-aged reviewer's fancy turns to thoughts of concerts coming up.

The San Jose Symphony at this time was thinking big. Two decades earlier it had been an amateur community orchestra, but it grew dramatically. In 1986, thriving under a major conductor, George Cleve, it became a full-time professional orchestra, and issued its most elaborate ticket brochure, filled with photographs and little colored boxes and a choice of multiple concert series numbered A to G, just like the San Francisco Symphony did.

Unfortunately the SJS's reach far exceeded its grasp. Ticket sales were never high enough to justify such munificence, the principal venue was an acoustically dreadful barn, and management was incompetent. In following years they backed down from this big-time style, but it wasn't enough. Finances, and musical interpretation after Cleve departed, slowly sank, and 15 years later the orchestra closed up shop, to be replaced by Symphony Silicon Valley, a more cautiously-run organization.

Part of SJS's problem was that their aspiration towards big-time included no sense of style of how to do it, and in the 1986-87 brochure this was glaringly evident in a section of blurbs about each of the 42 works in the season's repertoire, something SFS didn't initiate until much later, and theirs, which cover the whole concert instead of attacking each individual work, have never been this geeky. The combination of awkward earnestness with the style of a gauche boor butting into someone else's conversation (the use of unprompted "Indeed ..." and "Yes ...") and a certain looseness with facts and interpretations has to be read to be believed.

Here's the ones I copied:
MOZART: SYMPHONY NO. 29: "Amadeus" was indeed marvelous theatre, and its protagonist-genius composed divinely inspired symphonies like this one.
ELGAR: "ENIGMA" VARIATIONS: This is indeed a puzzle wrapped in a mystery, presumably about fourteen of the composer's friends. Whether or not we solve that mystery, this piece is endlessly charming.
TCHAIKOVSKY: SERENADE FOR STRINGS: What composer can make his strings sing such lovely arias? A treasure of unpretentious delight for fortunate listeners.
BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 4: Yes, autumnal melancholy is present in this work described by its modest creator as "a trifle," for it was the last symphony he was to compose. Yet it is epic in its power and irresistible in its musical sweep!
IVES: SYMPHONY NO. 2: Here's one of ours - a native composer come into his own - via this exuberant "bustin' out all over" flamboyance - as unmistakably, and irresistibly American as a country fair!
JANACEK-TALICH: CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN: This suite derives from a brilliantly original opera, replete with its Moravian folk inflections, in which animals and humans are jollily juxtaposed!
COWELL: SYMPHONY NO. 4: The music of this Charles Ives disciple is as American as deep-dish apple pie.
I particularly admire the last, a meaningless statement not a word of which is true except for "music" and "American". On the other hand, they did play it, the only time I've ever heard a Cowell symphony in concert. I was delighted to hear it, but when it was over there was as close to complete silence in the audience, except from me, as was compatible with politeness. So they never did anything like that again, either.

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