The Right Kind of Noise

From our 21 March 2018 edition of Chamber Chatter, the MCO’s concert program insert. The featured soloists at this concert are sopranos Tracy Dahl and Andriana Chuchman. Article written by MCO Marketing and Communications Manager Conrad Sweatman

It seems that ever since Marcel Duchamp stuck a porcelain urinal at the centre of a 1917 exhibition  —  presenting it as art and daring visitors to suggest otherwise — pundits have been heralding the death of art. The tumultuous premiere four years earlier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a similarly “revolutionary” moment in modern art — which is another way of saying that the work was (unfairly) disdained by the general public and intellectualized ad nauseum by generations of theorists. But in the music world perhaps no piece so captured the emerging anti-art zeitgeist as John Cage’s 4’33”, where the musicians sit in silence for four and a half minutes while the audience does their best, over what seems like eternity, not to cough.

Obviously this sort of mischief no longer provokes the shock it once did. Long past is the time when discordant premieres are greeted with boos and hisses, never mind riots, as Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Skandalkonzert were a century ago. In contrast to their rowdy aristocratic forebears, audiences today coolly applaud pieces they don’t care for (and no one likes everything) and politely refrain from whooping and hollering after their favourite movements and moments. Is this a problem? At an orchestras conference I attended a couple years ago, one classical music administrator insisted that it was. An energetic reaction is always better than a tepid one, she argued, regardless of whether it’s negative. In her mind, contemporary audiences’ civilized restraint is a fatal symptom of decades of declining sales in the classical music world. In other words, this is the way art ends, with a fiscal whimper, long after the Stravinskian bang!

After MCO’s 21 years of balanced budgets, and fairly consistent growth in the size of our audiences, it’s hard to share this pessimism. That’s not to say that we’re complacent about our stature as “Canada’s tiny, perfect orchestra” (Toronto Star). To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of time and work to sound this chic. For instance, we continually strive to discover and commission progressive Manitoba and Canadian composers. This is reflected by our launch of the New Concerto Project this current season, which included among other initiatives a commission and premiere of David’s Scott gorgeous Ritornello, a work that draws inspiration from the baroque form after which it’s named. Another new music highlight this season was the remount of Michael Oesterle’s incredibly powerful, even catchy The Iron Man, a past MCO commission, which was played impeccably by cellist Ariel Barnes in September. These are fresh, vigorous works of music that, while sharing as much in common with classical as modernist traditions, emanate from the distinctive voices of their composers  —  giving listeners fleeting senses of what the concert music of the future might sound like. So much for the death of art.

Of course, the MCO also continues to regularly perform the megahits of the classical tradition, and a quick glance at our 2018/19 season renewal form, stuffed inside the program you’re now holding, reminds one why these performances tend to be so popular and vital. To name a few: there’s our April 2019 show with 22 year-old Canadian wunderkind Jan Lisiecki, a torchbearer for his generation of pianists; our season-opening concert with cellist Colin Carr, a bonafide celebrity of his instrument; and the interactive presentation in January by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, one of the world’s top orchestras. We also know people will look forward to our March 2019 concert, which focuses on the brilliant musicians playing with our orchestra. But enough patting ourselves on the back. As we approach the end of our 45th season, and reflect nostalgically on our history and growth with a view to the many more seasons, collaborations, and innovations to come, we’re overwhelmed with gratitude for the subscribers and donors who continue to empower and inspire us. So, thank you. If you’re tempted to break with etiquette and whoop and holler after the final bars of what’s sure to be a sublime performance tonight, I say have at it for once. I know I’m in the mood.

 —Conrad Sweatman