Monday, March 6, 2017

Pass the Earplugs Please

It's a true curmudgeon who finds fault with anything in the Naples art scene.

We've got the wondrous Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, six chamber music programs, the Stay-in-May festival, Opera Naples, church music galore, jazz, barbershop, marvelous theater groups, Broadway shows, visiting orchestras, the Baker Museum and more.

And we've got big-time donors funding it all.

What can you possibly complain about?

I'll tell you what: The screeching cacophony of modern music.

We're being force-fed discordant noise and told it's music -- even better, music of our times, chic and elite. We're told to get with it. We won't look sophisticated if we don't whoop and applaud some of the worst sounds since an Amtrak train wreck.

It's been building like a cancer. In a past season, the Naples Philharmonic poisoned a wonderful Mahler program with the shrill honkings of Szpilman and Desyatnikov. One evening we had to endure abominations by Rozsa and Weinberg to get to Scheherazade (many had already left by then). That was topped by something called "How Wild the Sea" (Puts), drifting and atonal. Those who stayed got Tchaikovsky after intermission.

Last year the Phil outdid itself with a farcical piece that featured bowls of water, inverted cocktail shakers, a water tube, a sieve and three submergible gongs. The finale of this "Water Concerto" entailed the head splasher raising a colander out of one of the bowls to create a waterfall (allegro molto agitato). Only the first two rows got wet. Who says the circus is dying?

How about this season? If possible, it's getting worse. At a recent Phil concert, the audience was subjected to an ear-shattering piece misnamed "Beautiful Passing" (Mackey) -- think of a sharp object scratching a blackboard. People were stunned. One said, sotto voce, "My god, that was awful." The woman next to me said, "They would never get away with crap like that in New York." Of course, this isn't New York. Naples Daily News arts columnist Harriet Heithaus reported a plethora of negative emails. She wrote, "Gauging by the emails ... the 20-minute work ran 20 minutes too long."

We can't seem to get away from it. The usually reliable Classic Chamber Concerts went off the rails in January with an atonal potboiler called "River" (Kernis) -- a catastrophe made worse by the musicians first playing snippets of each movement and discussing them ad nauseam. One dispirited subscriber said, "That was doubly bad. We had to listen to it twice." Those with the courage to stay got Debussy after intermission.

Even great orchestras aren't immune. The mighty Vienna Philharmonic demeaned itself with some unrelenting noise called "Time Recycling." The audience didn't know what to think. The composer came out, perhaps embarrassed, and got a smattering of applause. At least no one booed. It proved the adage that bad music played by a great orchestra is still bad music.

So what gives here? Why the angst?

While it's true some people actually like modern music, the vast majority do not. The demographic in Naples is overwhelmingly elderly, and most concertgoers want the classics -- Bach to Rachmaninoff and most of the masters in between. Dissonance doesn't sell unless it's artfully hidden. ("Tonight's program features Mozart and Brahms.")

In any event, here are some suggestions that may help, some gratuitous advice to artistic directors.

First, put the contemporary pieces after intermission. That way people can get out before the carnage  begins.

Second, insist on truth in advertising. Something like the warning on cigarette packs: "Modern music could be dangerous to your listening health."

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