Midge Woolsey, WQXR Host
Midge Woolsey's grounding in opera and musical theater led her to become a producer and host for public television and radio, proudly serving the tristate community with her soothing presence for over 30 years.
As I was prepping my radio show this morning, I noticed a quote from Pierre Boulez about Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He said "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music" citing the creation of the piece as a pivotal moment in the history of music. That pivotal moment in the history of music took place 107 years ago.
One-hundred-seven years aside, I love the sound of Boulez’s words. They speak right to the heart of a question that’s been on my mind recently: Is it important to keep creating new music? After all, there’s a lot of old music out there – centuries and centuries of it, in fact – so why not work on making good with that and forget about creating anything new? Is there really new breath to breathe into the art of music or are today's composers just spinning their musical wheels?
The subject has been on my mind because 1) New York City Opera has just announced the casting of its 12th Annual VOX Contemporary Opera Lab and 2) I recently hosted the 10th annual From Page to Stage: New American Opera Previews at the Manhattan School of Music.
Each year at Manhattan School – after performances of excerpts from several "operas in progress" – the performers and the creative teams gather on the stage for a panel discussion. We talk about the creative process, the effect on the performers and why it’s important to continue to this challenging work.
This year – more than ever before, perhaps – I was impressed by the passion and commitment that the artists bring to their work. They talked about the importance of keeping the art of music alive by working together to create new listening experiences, nourishing our collective spirit as human beings and the need to bring meaning to the experience we share on earth.
Conductor/pianist Mara Waldman has participated in New American Opera Previews for each of the ten years of its existence. This year I found her comments particularly moving. “We need this art form, as proven by its hundreds of years of existence, to remind us of our humanity,” she explained, “…to heighten our understanding of life, to thrill us, move us and ultimately to enlighten us…We need 'new' opera…. to reveal us to ourselves as our lives and our society evolves. New music is the voice of people, through the gift of the composer, that enables us to sing in ways we never knew we could.”
Mara and the others on stage proved to me that when you consult the artists, the answer is very clear: new music definitely has the power to breathe new life into the art of music in ways that are not possible otherwise.
But what about the audience?
Listeners continue to have mixed reactions to “new music.” It's a well known fact that it’s extremely difficult to attract an audience for contemporary opera. And, as far as “new music” and WQXR is concerned, there are some who feel that “new music” doesn’t belong on this station – period! To make matters more difficult, these naysayers often include – even though they are far from “new” – many of the most important composers of the 20th century on their lists of “least preferred.” The likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg and Poulenc are persona non grata with some of our most loyal classical music consumers.
Igor Stravinsky has been gone for 40 years. The others have been gone much longer. So, when does “new” become “old” in the world of classical music? Is a century a long enough wait? Or -- given the dwindling amount of exposure we are given to classical music these days, is it unrealistic to imagine that the average listener will develop an ear for new sounds in his/her lifetime?
You know where I’m going with this. It’s an important topic and I’d like to know what you think when you have a minute.