Interview with Nick Rice
New York, Summer 2006
Rockwell was a classical and contemporary music critic at The New York
Times (1972-94), with spells as chief rock critic (1974-80),
classical music editor (1980-91), and European cultural correspondent (1992-4). He left the Times to found and direct the Lincoln Center
Festival (1994-8), but returned as editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section (1998-2002), as senior cultural correspondent and arts columnist
(2002-4), and in his latest incarnation as chief dance critic. He talks to us about American perceptions of contemporary classical music and its
struggles at Lincoln Center – with a little light horse sex along the way.
You’ve been working in the arts industry for over four decades, with over two decades’ worth of experience as a classical and contemporary music critic at some of the top American newspapers. During that time, do you believe anything has changed in American coverage of contemporary classical music?
Sure. It’s declined in print and expanded online. Of course, the music has changed too, which does have some impact on how it’s covered. The New York Times is clearly not typical – of anything. Arts coverage, and especially high arts coverage, has declined nationwide, and expanded at The New York Times. On the other hand, classical music coverage has also expanded, but it reached a kind of nadir in the late 90s and early 00s. And then they did an expansion of the entire cultural section a couple of years ago, and suddenly it’s like a golden age. We used to lose a lot of reviews in the performing arts, even pop reviews, but especially classical music and dance reviews. The stringers, not the staff people, would go out and write these small reviews of obscure concerts and obscure dance programs, or whatever, and half the time the reviews would never make the paper, and they would not be archived. It was enormously frustrating for the artists, but also for the writers.
People were stringing for you all the time?
Yeah, yeah. Anne Midgette told me three or four years ago that out of seven or eight reviews she’d written in a given month, five had never appeared. Well, that doesn’t happen now, which is great, and in the very occasional situation when something doesn’t run, it still gets archived on the Internet, so things are better. There were more staff music critics when I arrived at The New York Times 35 years ago than there are now. You have [Anthony] Tommasini, and [Bernard] Holland, and [Allan] Kozinn; they’re the staff music critics. [Jim] Oestrich is on the staff, but as an editor; he writes reviews, but he has staff-writer seniority without being an actual staff music critic. Midgette and [Jeremy] Eichler, soon to depart for The Boston Globe, are the stringers. And there were, like, five or six staff music critics when I arrived at the Times, and no pop or jazz critics – you had two stringers. And now, of course, it’s changed, so you have more music critics overall, but fewer staff classical critics. But nationwide there’s still strong coverage in Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston, with much fewer staff writers, but, on the other hand, more stringers and a less broad field to cover. So, the popification – in other words, the concentration less on serious writing about rock and jazz and more on following whoever’s topping the tainted charts – has been the trend nationwide. I mean, if you open up a newspaper in – I’m making this up – Indianapolis (it may have the greatest newspaper in the world, but just take it as an example of a midsize American city) – if you open up a typical paper, there’ll be a review of a movie, a review of a TV show, and that’s about it. In terms of arts coverage, you know, occasionally they’ll give you a review of the local symphony or the museum because the publisher’s friends are on the board, but as a whole high arts coverage has declined, and needless to say coverage of “serious” contemporary classical music has declined even more. Even if our hypothetical paper in Indianapolis was going to review the local symphony concert, a concert at the local university of, you know, Sciarrino and Lachenmann would probably not get covered. You know, it would just be considered some sort of eccentricity on the part of the professors. Conversely, however, on the Internet, coverage of new music is thriving. Now, of course, that’s not a paying job, in most cases, but there’s New Music Box (Frank Oteri’s thing), or Alex Ross’s blog (of course, he does cover some contemporary music, but selectively, in The New Yorker), or Greg Sandow’s blog. If you hung around on the Internet, you could find an enormous conversation going on about Sciarrino that is simply not reflected in the daily newspapers. That’s the answer. Impassioned specialists can pursue their interest in contemporary music in a way that mainstream newspapers do not. On the other hand, when you get a big hairy première like John Adams’ Doctor Atomic – the opera’s going to four or five other opera companies, including, I think, the Royal Opera, certainly Amsterdam, and somewhere in Germany, and the Met, and Seattle – that’s a big deal, and everybody covered it to death. So you can’t say simply that the coverage of contemporary classical music has declined. What has declined has been the coverage of obscure, often university-oriented concerts. I mean, the Ensemble Modern probably wouldn’t tour in – I don’t know why I’m beating up on Indianapolis, as I say, it may be the most fabulous cultural city in the world, I don’t know, but, once again, take it as an example: the Ensemble Modern is not going to travel there. Whereas, if it comes to New York, it will be covered – not by The New York Post, not by The Daily News, not by The Village Voice – probably by Newsday, definitely by The New York Times. But, you know, the mention of Doctor Atomic once again calls into question the nature of contemporary classical music. For better or for worse – possibly for worse, although basically, I think, for better – the stranglehold in the United States of the academic serialists was broken 20 years ago, and a lot of that resulted in music that was a sort of pandering neo-Romanticism, but a lot of interesting music with a greater appeal to a lot of people has arisen. James Levine in Boston is upholding the flag for the old guard with his constant programming of Carter and Schuller and Wuorinen and people like that, but, on the whole, the nature of contemporary classical music has changed. Something like Doctor Atomic probably would not have happened 20 or 30 years ago, simply because music in that idiom, with electronic instruments blending into the acoustic instruments, would not have been accepted by big institutions.
Is that partly because it’s more difficult to put on concerts or opera performances that involve electronics?
No, no, I’m saying it’s more done that way because – Adams is his own man, I’m not saying that Doctor Atomic sounds like anything else – but Adams has been a pioneer in this blending of electronics with acoustic instruments, and it creates pictures, sonic pictures that are more appealing and recognizable to a more general audience. And I’m not saying that he’s one of the panderers – I think that John Adams’ music is very interesting – but it’s not deliberately off-putting, and the technical aspects of coordinating it are not insurmountable at all.
And I noticed Adams mentioned in interviews previously that composers who are restricted to a serial or post-serial idiom are ignoring all the huge riches that, for instance, rock has brought to music.
I agree with him, although most of the hardcore guys of 25 years ago have loosened up and opened up, claiming that of course they are not following fashion but really are responding to their own inner muse, which is nonsense; so it’s a widespread thing. Reinforced by Levine, people like Wuorinen and Schuller have rediscovered their polemical teeth, and are now given to dismiss that remark about rock music and so forth. The fact is that there has been a bringing together between former polemical opposites.
For instance, David Del Tredici, whom you mentioned in your book All American Music, coming from within the serial establishment but working towards a more tonal kind of idiom.
Well, yeah, sure, there are a lot of people like Del Tredici. I mean, Del Tredici has disappeared in terms of producing music that has been heard widely in the last 20 years, but there are plenty of people. I was vastly amused the other day when I moderated a panel at the Harvard Club of four fellows at the Radcliffe Institute – fellows meaning three women and a man – who – they have a program up at the Radcliffe Institute, which is what Radcliffe College, the women’s college at Harvard, has morphed into now – were in a sort of urban MacDowell colony of 50 artists, scientists, intellectuals and scholars etc. – 50 of them are brought up for the year to hang out and do their work, and I did this panel of these four members who were artists, and one of them, the man, was a professor at Princeton, which used to be the absolute center, along with Columbia, of Babbitt and hardcore serialism, and this guy is writing a book on beauty in music and why tonal music is the only way to go – just the complete 180 degree opposite of Babbitt’s position, and I noticed that irony on the panel, and he said, “Oh, no, I’m the last of a long train, because the revolution at the Princeton music department happened 20 years ago, and I’m now just coming in and echoing the opinions of the professors there,” rather than him being some sort of pioneer. I found that funny.
Do you think it’s partly a fault of contemporary music critics that, for instance, the shift from abstract painting to more figurative tendencies has been extremely well documented and is better known to the public at large than the shift from a more inaccessible serial idiom to a more accessible, more tonal, or more modal, idiom? Do you think there’s better writing about the visual arts?
No, because, well, first of all, specialists tend to exist more in the academy or on the Internet. To be a very good critic, you have to be more of a generalist, you have to expand the range from Sciarrino to Beethoven to Monteverdi or before, you just have to do it, and I always believed that I was thwarted in my efforts to make this happen, that if you’re a music critic, you should cover everything, all music. But that’s the opposite of being a specialist. I don’t know whether you could say that the art critics – I mean, most of the critics who write in daily newspapers do write about all kinds of music, whether it’s [Alex] Ross in The New Yorker, or Mark Swed in LA, or Joshua Kosman in San Francisco, or John von Rhein in Chicago, or Dick Dyer or Jeremy Eichler in Boston, or Tony Tommasini here – they all write about all kinds of music. Each has his own thing – Tony Tommasini has a predilection for the Levine style of contemporary music, Mark Swed, for example, is a Cage man and beyond – but they all write about symphony concerts and so forth. I think that what is true is that the visual art public accepted all kinds of art much more readily, and all kinds of artistic innovations much more readily, than the classical music crowd. Partly, that has to do with the fact that if you walk into a gallery and you don’t like something you just walk by, whereas if you’re sitting in a concert hall and some 25-minute piece of new, horrible noise comes along you’re trapped in your seat; that is a difference in the public. But now, with [head of programming at Lincoln Center] Jane Moss, with the Lincoln Center Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Tilson Thomas out in San Francisco, Salonen in LA and so forth, there are real movements on trying to make contemporary music popular and exciting to the general public. But the answer to your question – is art criticism better or more open to a wider range of innovation in tradition? I don’t know.
Do you think art critics have proportionally more time to devote to contemporary art?
Well, I think they probably do devote more time to it, because contemporary art occupies a larger space on the spectrum of stuff that is reviewed. For every Rembrandt show at the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a Donald Judd show at MoMA, or P.S. 1, or one of the more outré mainstream organizations. They choose to devote more time to it because critics reflect. They may think of themselves as leaders, but they also reflect what’s going on. Even if they’re violently negative about something, they have to cover it, if they’re in newspapers. Magazines are more selective, and the Internet is wildly more selective, and in a visual arts specialty magazine – something like Art News – you’re dealing with largely contemporary-oriented stuff. That world has been more progressive and welcoming for all kinds of reasons of new work than old, and as I pointed out in All American Music, but I may as well point it out now, a lot of the early minimalist composers got their start at museum concerts because they couldn’t get gigs at concert halls.
You feel there are all sorts of reasons why the visual arts are more into contemporary works. Why, apart from the fact that an audience can’t walk out of the concert hall?
The temporal issue, the collectable issue – even though there were a lot of artists in the 60s and 70s who revolted against the notion that their work could be collected – Land Art people and whatever. My wife and I went up to a benefit dinner at the Dia: Beacon [contemporary art gallery north of New York], and it was happening because there were all these rich people – we went up because we were friends with the composer Max Neuhaus. There are rich people in New York who give money to the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera and all that, but these people were giving it to Dia because they thought it was trendy and exciting, in the same way that the BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] board thinks it’s trendy and exciting to support BAM. So there’s some sort of appeal to a rich person, especially to a rich person who can actually buy a Donald Judd, or whatever, and put it in his big trendy living room. More abstract, not to say gaseous, perspectives on ideas about visual arts would say that we live in visual times, that particular forms of art have their heyday, like music in the 19th century. There has been an argument to the effect that the visual arts, most broadly speaking, are in an apogee at the moment, but I’m not sure I agree with that. I just think that humankind’s lust for aural excitement is being satisfied by a far larger range of music than contemporary classical composition, by world music, for example. And a lot of the most exciting stuff in contemporary classical music is just that – the hybridization of Tan Dun, or whoever. That’s why I think, and have always argued, that separating off classical music from other kinds of music is an artificial division. If you’re really talking about music as such, then I think people are totally interested in contemporary music. It’s just that we’ve x-ed all those people out in consideration of contemporary music.
So what have you done personally to try and advocate this vision of the music critic as a person who can cover any kind of music?
My career, that’s what I’ve done. And All American Music, the book: that was a manifesto. I’ve advocated the idea to the point of annoying obsession, I’m sure, on the part of some people while I was a music critic, and since then, of course, I wrote about all kinds of music, and indeed all kinds of arts, when I was in Paris. I presented and produced all kinds of arts when I was at Lincoln Center. I advocated it across the board when I was editing Arts and Leisure, and when I was an arts columnist, and people feel that my dance reviews are very open to musical issues and theatrical issues as well as strictly dance issues. One can find parallels. To talk about minimalism, for instance, in music is absurd if you can’t convey some awareness of how that was preceded by a minimalism in the visual arts, and paralleled by minimalism in dance, and echoed by minimalism in film and a lot of other genres. Knowing something across the board, which doesn’t mean you can’t have particular specialties – I have my little specialties within all the different arts. I’ve always found that there’s a virtue in breadth, and up until 91 that breadth was largely expressed in my interest in music all across the board, and then in the arts all across the board. But specifically about music, if you ask what I’ve done, I’ve done everything I could.
Do you think it helps artists form a scene if there’s a writer out there who’s covering the parallels between different genres, different means of expression? Does it help artists come together for collaborative projects?
Maybe, but, once again, critics are reflectors, it just depends how well they reflect. In other words, the first line of All American Music was, “This is a book about music as it really is,” my theory being that what I said in that book was self-evident to anybody who actually looked at it free of prejudice. As I pointed out in that book and many others, scenes evolve in a neighborhood or in a city sort of spontaneously. Artists are interested in the work of other artists, sometimes more interested than their competitors in their own field, so that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, today, or in SoHo, here, 20 years ago, visual artists were listening to music – the minimalist composers, but often rock and roll, not contemporary music – and dancers were collaborating with composers, contemporary composers. When Reich and Glass were getting started in the 60s and early 70s, everybody choreographed to their music at that point. And theater was in there, with Bob Wilson as the prime example in the late 60s or early 70s, and now they have international careers, but Bob was totally mixed up in all that stuff and reflective of it. So social scenes form with artists becoming interested in the work of other artists of their generation, whatever their style may be, and critics reflect that. Now I’m not trying to totally poormouth the role of the critic, which of course can…I mean, you ask about critics seeing parallels in all the arts…a critic who is friendly and supportive to contemporary work will generate interest and excitement in that work, the primary example of course being a critic in San Francisco when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s whose name was Alfred Frankenstein – not to be confused with another critic in Israel named Alfred Frankenstein. At any rate, San Francisco’s Alfred Frankenstein was the visual art and music and dance critic of the Chronicle, but specifically in a period in which the visual arts were great, but the music scene out in San Francisco in the 60s and early 70s was a lot more interesting and individual, at least, in my opinion, and Frankenstein was an incredible champion of all that stuff, incredibly eloquent and smart and on the money. His review of the world première of Terry Riley’s In C in 1964 is really a good read. And when he left and retired, his place was taken by Robert Commanday, who was the classical music critic for many years at The San Francisco Chronicle, and he hated all that stuff. And the scene was snuffed out. Now you could argue that it was in the process of evolution anyhow, that a lot of these artists were settling down and accepting academic positions, especially at places like UC San Diego and so forth, so it might have wound down anyhow, with the zeitgeist and the reaction against the student uprisings and stuff of the 60s.
They didn’t institutionalize themselves.
Well, especially if they’d moved away. But the scene evaporated, largely, and I can’t help but think that Frankenstein’s departure had something to do with that. For many years, Martin Bernheimer, my old boss at the LA Times, was dismissive of most contemporary music, and he was replaced by Swed, who is incredibly open to it, and at the same time or earlier Alan Rich had moved out from the East Coast and had a series of jobs as a critic in LA, and both Swed and Rich are great champions of contemporary music. And now the new music scene is flourishing in LA, right up to Salonen and programs of Ligeti festivals at the LA Phil, or minimalist festivals under Adams at the LA Phil, and there’s no question in my mind that Swed and Rich, among others, have helped create a climate. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing; I don’t think they created it, I think it was an evolution and they championed it. There’s been a wonderful California new music scene over the last 75 years, dating back to Henry Cowell, much of it centered in the Big Sur area up to San Francisco rather than LA, which, when I was in LA in the early 70s, was dominated by this East Coast, serialist, European-derived school, and the open, catholic, Asian-Pacific-Rim-type new music that is really characteristic of California, epitomized by the late Lou Harrison, was sort of shunted aside, but now it’s welcomed. There’s been a big festival of Lou Harrison’s music at the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, overseen by [critic] Joe Horowitz.
You talk in your book All American Music about this concept of the Dramaturg [a critic who advises on artistic events], a particular example being Michael Steinberg at the San Francisco Symphony in the 80s while John Adams was making his mark. You yourself played this role when you left the New York Times to oversee the first few years of the Lincoln Center Festival. How can someone in that position balance being a critic with being a direct advisor or an actual presenter or producer?
I would suggest that Joe’s campaign to break down those barriers may be a little extreme, and it may be that the current position of separation in America is less intense in England. Even in England it’s rare that a functioning critic on the side will produce stuff that he is expected to review. When I started working on the Lincoln Center Festival in 1994, it was the time when BAM was beginning to suggest to people that was an actual audience for innovative work amongst the mainstream, and Jane Moss at the Lincoln Center Great Performers [symphony concert series] was pushing in that direction, and [Lincoln Center president Nathan] Leventhal and [Lincoln Center chairwoman Beverly] Sills were eager to go in that direction, and I was eager to go in that direction. There were problems at Lincoln Center. One was institutional – there was resistance from the constituents, especially [outgoing chief] Joe Volpe at the Met, against what they perceived as Lincoln Center Inc., the central organization, trying to take over programming, and a lot of ad hominem nonsense, especially between Volpe and Nat Leventhal – they hated each other. So that was difficult, and there were tensions involving how much of the constituents we had to use, or could use – in other words, did we have to showcase the New York Philharmonic every summer, and the New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera, and rent the New York City Theater and make use of the New York City Opera orchestra, those kinds of pressures. But the other big problem with the Lincoln Center Festival – I mean, this was a big deal, it was a $10-million budget from the get-go, which is huge compared to a lot of other year-round budgets of organizations in New York, and we had these three big theaters, huge – New York State Theater and Avery Fisher [Hall at Lincoln Center] both seat about 2,700, the Met seats 3,900, so they’re enormously expensive, with the union costs and so forth, to run – and you have to put on stuff that has a shot of filling them. And a lot of the most innovative work we did was at small little venues, many of which we opened up and discovered, like the concert hall and theater at LaGuardia High School [of Music and Art and Performing Arts], or the John Jay College of Criminal Justice theater, or the Society for Ethical Culture’s auditorium and so forth; but those are all small venues, and you could put on interesting stuff, and often it would sell out. I could put on a Morton Feldman festival at the Society for Ethical Culture and do very well. We sold a lot of tickets, and it did generate a lot of interest and enthusiasm. But to try to put on – well, I’ll give you a funny example. I wanted to do Peter Greenaway, whom I much admire, and Louis Andriessen’s opera – what’s it called? – Rosa – the one about this cowboy who’s obsessed with his horse, and then a woman who strips naked and paints herself black and allows herself to be screwed onstage by this cowboy, thinking that if she’s a horse, he’ll go for her again – it’s pretty out there. I played a videotape of that for Sills and Leventhal, and Leventhal and Stills were hot to do it. Joe Volpe would not allow such a degenerate work in the sacred precincts of the Met; and we ultimately could not do it at the State Theater, because there’s a lot of filmic stuff in it that Greenway had shot of Brokeback Mountain-style cowboys riding endlessly across the outback of Australia – literally, that’s where it was shot. And the way it was shot was that it needed a rear projection of a total of something like 35 feet, which was available at the Met, but not at the State Theater, so Greenaway would have had to go out to Australia at enormous expense and re-shoot it with a different aspect ratio or angle over a shorter-distance, upward-tilted rear projection, and we couldn’t afford that. But the point was that they were eager and willing to do experimental stuff, but you had to calculate it so that something in it would be attractive enough to come reasonably close to filling these huge theaters. That was the big drawback of the Lincoln Center Festival. When I did the Feldman festival in 1996, I wanted to do his opera neither, but it’s a 90-piece orchestra, it would have to have been done in the State Theater, and there was no chance in hell we could attract 2,700 people. We could attract 400 people for concerts at the Society for Ethical Culture, but not 2,700 people over three performances. So there were economic constraints. My successor, Nigel, finally did do a Greenaway/Andriessen opera, Writing to Vermeer, and they did it at the State Theater, and I think one of the reasons they were able to attract whatever crowd they attracted was that – I don’t know whether you saw that production, but it was an amazing deal, at the end of it they dumped about 200,000 gallons of water onto the stage, it was just amazing, the technical aspect of dealing with all this water, it was just enormous.
Do you think that maybe the secret behind attracting people to contemporary music is by combining it with something else?
Well, no. I mean, if you have to be under the peculiar limitations of BAM, which got rid of its smaller experimental space, although they may build another one someday. But even so, BAM has the Harvey [Theater], which only seats 900 – the BAM Opera House seats 2,000 or something. We had these three huge theaters, and it really pushed it, distorted it. But up at the Miller Theater, or Zankel Hall [in the Carnegie Hall complex], they do a lot of contemporary music. It’s not that you have to associate it with flash to make it work. You only have to associate it with flash if you’re dealing with ludicrously inflated theaters. I mean, Miller Theater seats four or five hundred, and they have this image, well cultivated by [director George] Steele, of being constantly full, which is not true. Pamela Rosenberg used to run the San Francisco Opera, and she and I went to a Lachenmann concert at the Miller Theater about three years ago, and it was about a third full, so it’s not just constant success. But Jane Moss and George Steele and Ara Guzelimian, or whoever conducts the programming at Zankel, manage to attract real audiences for Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, which I tried and failed to do at the Lincoln Center Festival when the Kronos [Quartet] pulled out, I think, and has since been done at Zankel by the Flux Quartet.
Does Lincoln Center now have more potential for these kinds of events now it has the Rose Theater [at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex]?
The Rose Theater is a help; it’s a good theater, very flexible. But they’re still using all the theaters that we pioneered. There were the two theaters in LaGuardia; they didn’t use them for a year because they got irritated at the school because they hadn’t repaired the air-conditioning, but they’re using that again, and they’re using the John Jay, and they’re using the Rose.
In what way is the Rose Theater flexible?
Physically. It can be a concert hall, it can be a proscenium theater, it can be in-the-round. Of course, Jazz at Lincoln Center doesn’t need all that stuff. That theater was the exact replica of a theater that I was on the initial committees to design that was originally going to be built as a theater, part of Lincoln Center Inc., on 65th [Street] and Broadway, and the constituents, meaning all the constituent companies, as part of their hatred of Leventhal, shut it down. It was going to be the mini-Met, it was going to be all kinds of interesting things. And so Leventhal pulled a fast one and relocated to Jazz at Lincoln Center down at the Time Warner Building, which the constituents couldn’t undermine because it was a constituent’s project.
Who tried to undermine it?
Well, Volpe, mostly. But Leventhal had worked out an enormous financial deal and wanted the city and the donor, Rose, to pay for the thing. He’s some real estate guy whose family is very active on the various Lincoln Center boards. In any event, it was going to cost $6 million a year in terms of upkeep and maintenance and so forth, and the constituents, led by Volpe, argued that raising that money would detract from their own fundraising efforts, and that the theater, which was originally designed because Jimmy Levine at one point wanted a mini-Met, was going to be in competition with the constituents’ projects, so they shut it down. Very short-sighted of them, but...
Do you think, now that [former president of Sony Classical] Peter Gelb has taken over from Joe Volpe, there will be a more positive attitude towards contemporary music at the Met?
It depends what you mean by contemporary music. In Gelb’s case – I mean, we’re not going to see Brian Ferneyhough at the Met. We’re not going to see Tony Tommasini’s insane favorite Lewis Spratlin at the Met. Not that [his opera] Life as a Dream doesn’t have its charms, but Tony’s become just obsessed with Lewis Spratlin. In any case, with 3,900 seats and their running costs, there’s no way they’re ever going to produce it. I mean, they took a bath on the Corigliano and the Harbison [version of the The Great Gatsby], although I like Corigliano, but it came a cropper, and so did the Harbison, in my view. Gelb’s tastes are for crossover and world music stuff, and for flashy productions. They’re going to do [John Adams’ opera] Doctor Atomic – it’s definitely on the books for 2009 or something – and there’s [The Death of] Klinghoffer, of course, although that was subverted, potentially, by the right-wing Jewish press in New York, who proclaimed it to be anti-Semitic. I don’t believe that to be true, but…Did you ever see Penny Woolcock’s movie, on Channel Four? I thought that was very interesting. My wife is half Jewish, and I had a party of Jewish intellectuals here about six months ago, all friends of ours, including one, Ray Sokolov, who used to edit the Leisure and Arts page of the Wall Street Journal, who was a violent opponent of Klinghoffer. And we had them over for dinner, and they knew what they were getting, and we played them Penny Woolcock’s movie, and they all professed to like it. I think Klinghoffer’s gotten a terrible bad rep, but Nixon in China is clearly up-and-coming, it’s getting more and more productions, and so are things like Satyagraha of Glass. Gelb has started this institute with the Lincoln Center Theater, which I think is a good idea, to commission work from people who made their careers in post-Sondheim musicals, but maybe musicals will come out of it, maybe an opera will come out of it. And he’s not doing Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, Lincoln Center Festival is doing Grendel. I mean, I’ve known Peter for a long time – he’s the son of the former managing editor of the New York Times – and he has a calculating, promotional/vulgarian streak – but basically I think his ideas are a breath of fresh air, and I wish him the best.
Do you think there’s any way he can recreate the halcyon days when Einstein on the Beach got premièred at the Met?
Forget halcyon days. The Met may have been involved as a co-producer in the sense that it gave him a slight break on the house costs or something, but that was essentially a rental. There were no halcyon days at the Met. The only halcyon days in terms of contemporary music, the only thing close to halcyon days was 75 years ago, when they were commissioning Louis Gruenberg and people like that to write opera.
But comparatively speaking…
Comparatively speaking, the Met has been better the last 10 years than it was the previous 30 or 40, in terms of contemporary music. Look at all the operas they got: Corigliano, Bolcom, Harbison, etcetera, the Tan Dun opera to come, and there’s another one in the works, I can’t remember who was commissioned to do that…The Met has commissioned more operas in the last 10 years than it has in the previous 50. However, they did commission a bunch in the ’20s. So, there were no halcyon days. Einstein on the Beach was a pure anomaly, and it was lost on that stage. I mean, it’s still effective – I’m something of an expert on Einstein on the Beach – but it was much better in Avignon than the Met.
But do you think there might come a time in New York again when contemporary classical musicians will be able to mix with visual artists, choreographers, theatre directors and produce a scene that puts out regularly innovative work?
Oh, of course – they sort of do – but once I asked Virgil Thomson why there was such a scene of American artists in Paris in the ’30s and ’40s, and he said, Real estate. Cheap rents. That’s why SoHo was a scene in the late ’60s and ’70s, that’s why Williamsburg has been a scene, that’s why neighborhoods in Brooklyn have been developing such scenes. All kinds of crossovers exist there now; it’s just they don’t attract such mainstream attention. But the mainstream attention was very spotty. I mean, I was the first New York Times music critic ever to cover contemporary music on a regular basis below 14th Street. Mind you, 100 years ago below 14th Street was the center of classical music with the Academy of Music, but I’m talking about in the 20th century. So scenes attract the interest of particular critics and particular critics, with luck, or whatever, get attached to particular outlets, and then can help encourage the scene. But the scene happens first.
What scene do you think has come after Glass in New York in terms of a fusion of visual arts, literature…?
know, it waxes and wanes, and once again, as I said – no longer
being a music critic, I’m not fully up on this – but, for
example, composers get involved in the Lincoln Center Theater’s
experiments all the time. There’s a whole post-Sondheimian music
scene going on there. The crossover stuff encouraged by The Knitting Factory
about 10 years ago – John Zorn and all those people – that
was a real scene, and they mixed with – I don’t know enough
about the contemporary visual arts to know who they were mixing with.
But there’s young people, there’s activity – you know,
the club scene on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn – everything
from dance to burlesque to various forms of experimental rock music. It’s
just popping if you go over there. It’s amazing. Now a lot of this
may not be contemporary music derived from the European classical tradition,
but it’s happening.