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The Concert Programming Dilemma

The Concert Programming Dilemma


-Josh Jacobson 2020

Over the past few weeks the Zamir Chorale of Boston has posted several music videos on YouTube as a gift to our audience and to raise morale in these crazy times of Corona. As of this writing, the video of Ives’s “Psalm 90” has attracted 545 views and Nowakowski’s “Adonay Zekhoronu” 743 views. But our “doo-wop” version of the Passover song “Dayenu” has had a whopping 1,800 views. Shtick beats serious.

In an article entitled, “A Theory of Mass Culture” (1953) Dwight MacDonald formulated what he called “Gresham’s Law in Culture.”

A statistically significant part of the population, I venture to guess, is chronically confronted with a choice between going to the movies or to a concert, between reading Tolstoy or a detective story, between looking at Old Masters or at a TV show.… Good art competes with Kitsch, serious ideas compete with commercialized formulas—and the advantage lies all on one side.

There seems to be a Gresham’s Law in cultural as well as monetary circulation: bad stuff drives out the good, since it is more easily understood and enjoyed. … The aesthetic quality of Kitsch is that it predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art because it includes the spectator’s reactions in the work of art itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses. … When to this ease of consumption is added Kitsch’s ease of production because of its standardized nature, its prolific growth is easy to understand. It threatens High Culture by its sheer pervasiveness, its brutal, overwhelming quantity.

What’s he talking about? First of all, the phenomenon that it’s expensive to cater to individual tastes. An item that is mass produced (i.e. that will be purchased by large enough numbers of people) is less expensive to produce. Therefore, it can be more affordable to the masses and it can make a higher profit than items which are individually crafted, or which, because they appeal to smaller numbers of people, must be produced in smaller quantities (if they get produced at all), making the unit cost much higher. So if your taste is in line with the masses you’re in luck. And if it’s not, there’s always advertising to convince you that you should fall in line.

Secondly he’s referring to the phenomenon of pre-digested art.

• Situation comedies come complete with laugh tracks, saving you the bother of deciding whether or not it’s funny.

• In most TV dramas every possible subtlety of plot or relationship is spelled out for you in black and white, saving you the effort of thinking about hidden meanings and shades of gray.

• Some news broadcasters focus on the sensational and don’t allow time for in-depth nuanced analysis.

• In popular music there is a strong element of percussion, not creative percussion, merely a kind of click track so you’ll never lose the beat.

• In top-40 music the words and melody must be simple enough so that after the end of his/her three-minute attention span the listener will be “hooked” and will “like” it or buy it.

The great conductor Robert Shaw (1916-1999) wrote,

Popular music is not the people’s music. The people think so little of [popular music] that they tire of it in six to sixteen weeks. There is music which is calculated to make us forget—and there is music which allows us to remember…to remember our humanity and whatever individual conscience may ascribe to divinity. The truth is that worship [and music] should be a heart-wrenching, soul-searing, mind-stretching and generally exhausting experience.

What’s lacking in popular culture? Imagination, which Webster calls, “the power to form a mental image of something not present to the senses.” Poetry—not doggerel “greeting card” poetry—cannot be read quickly; it must be savored. Metaphors and similes provoke imagination. Great music may require more than three minutes of your attention. If attentive, you may notice motivic and thematic connections, scale patterns, unexpected chord progressions, word painting, orchestral colors, dynamic subtleties.

Moreover, we live in an era of instant gratification. We tolerate no delays in the arrival of our food, our data, our Amazon orders. So we don’t take the time to savor a poem, a symphony or a fine meal. We won’t stop long enough to admire a Monet.

In the words of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), “Anything of a serious nature isn’t ‘instant’—you can’t ‘do’ the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?”


The American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) gave up trying to make people listen to his music. His music was too difficult for “normal” people to digest. In 1920 he wrote,

Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to, do not bother us, and for that reason, we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently… when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.

Great musicians don’t do their thing just to be popular or to make money. They are obsessed—there is no choice other than to create, to perform, to express the truth. Not unlike the biblical prophet Amos who exclaimed:

When the lion roars, who can help but be afraid?

When you hear the voice of the Lord, how could you refrain from communicating that message? (Amos 3:8)

In a similar vein, conductor Howard Swan (1906-1995) wrote:

A poet must write, an artist must paint, and musicians must make music if they are to be at peace within themselves. What we can be, we must be.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, and one of its boldest and bravest innovators, wrote, “While composing for me had been a pleasure, now it became a duty. I knew I had to fulfill a task. I had to express what was necessary to be expressed and I had the duty of developing my ideas for the sake of progress in music, whether I liked it or not.”

Arnold Schoenberg was convinced that if music was pure, if it was created for the purpose of expressing deep sentiments through the worlds of sound, uncompromised by concerns for accessibility, affect or financial success, then music could convey a prophetic message, revealing a transcendent reality. He said that the greatest musician is “a priest of art,” approaching art in the same spirit of consecration as the priest approaches the presence of the Divine.

In 1928 Arnold Schoenberg wrote his own libretto for an opera which he subsequently set to music. Moses und Arondeals with the struggle between the purity of a great idea and the inability of the masses to grasp that idea. Moses gets the idea of Divinity in a flash of inspiration and then continues to explore it. But Moses is aware that by putting the divine idea into words it immediately perverts and cheapens the idea. So he is frustrated by his inability to communicate his great vision.

His brother, Aaron, has no such compunctions. He realizes that the Israelites have no idea what Moses is getting at, and that in order to make the people go along with this covenant Aaron has to be able to communicate it in a way that ordinary mortals can easily understand. He is willing to compromise. And so it is Aaron who speaks to the people, translating Moses’ obscure ideas into rituals and even fashioning a golden calf as a tangible object of worship.

Arnold Schoenberg once said, “The ideas represented [in my opera, Moses und Aron] are all so much tied in with my own personality.” In other words, while Arnold Schoenberg closely identified with the purity of thought represented by Moses, he realized that only Aaron could have found the means of communication enabling him to compose an opera. The Moses-and-Aron dialectic is the struggle within Arnold Schoenberg himself, and perhaps within all of us who grapple with these questions.

Like Aaron, we must make a connection, we must be able to communicate with our audiences for the purpose of elevating them in some way. But there must also be a core of Moses in everything that we do.

Has our choir sold out? Have we simplified our repertoire just to attract an audience? Do we shy away from repertoire that is challenging? Are we too attracted to that which is trendy?

How seductive for us is ease, popularity and success? As Artistic Director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, I am responsible for choosing repertoire and constructing concert programs. I love to do the great choral orchestral masterworks, but they’re expensive to produce. Most of our concerts present a mixture of shorter works. And I try to provide a combination of some folklore, some popular, and some “classical,” but always with the highest possible performance standards.

There is certainly room for popular culture in our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with programming music that is entertaining—unless it becomes a steady diet. Then to paraphrase Gresham and MacDonald, the trivial drives out the tremendous.

It’s good to struggle. When we struggle we continue to discover. Complacency is fatal.

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