Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tradition Exchange

I've been saying for months now that the countries of the world should put their heads together (maybe even for more time than this week's ultra-hyped G20 summit — it doesn't even last a full day!) and trade ideas about what works and what doesn't in their respective countries.

A trivial example? Drinking fountains. I'm convinced that once Europeans are introduced to them, they'll never want to go back. Despite knowing for many months now that they don't exist on this side of the ocean, I still find myself looking for one every now and then.

Maybe a more meaningful example? Healthcare. Europeans have it. Americans don't. We should have been able to fix this a long time ago; maybe now we have another shot.

If the world's leaders can't or won't hold such an exchange in ideas, surely the world's musical leaders can. And they must! Last night I saw the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on tour here in London, and it's not even that they were all that fantastic, but they were so German. Maybe I'm still starry-eyed after the Berlin Phil concert two weeks ago, but the Germans play with far more sensitivity than one might imagine. It's as though the tradition is about playing together and not necessarily being an individual virtuoso, and the result is stunning. Why can't the ego-centric Americans and Brits learn from how tightly these orchestras play? (And please make the switch to rotary trumpets — piston instruments are great for jazz and brass band but useless in an orchestral context.)

In such a musical summit, then, the German style of orchestral playing surely must be adopted as the model, and I propose that the British style of singing and the American style of composing should likewise become the models to which the rest of the world can aspire.

The British choral and vocal tradition is without equal; in fact, the only mar on last night's performance was the German soprano who warbled and wobbled her way through Strauss' Four Last Songs. Thankfully, I was sitting in the choir behind the orchestra and didn't have to bear the brunt of her Wagner-esque treatment.

Finally, I find the path that American composers are treading (since the 1980s with such pieces as Adams' Harmonielehre, Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, and Del Tredici's In Memory of a Summer's Day) far more convincing and useful than that of European or British composers (this is, of course, in the most general terms possible). While they are stuck still fighting the battles of the 1950s and 1960s, the Americans have found their own way off the battlefield.

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