Sorry or Grateful: Should Orchestras Play Show Tunes?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011 - 04:49 PM

Put me in the “grateful” column for the upcoming New York Philharmonic performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. The same “band” that nailed Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the Hungarian Echoes Festival has also been branching out into Broadway: they played a wonderful 80th birthday tribute to Sondheim last year, and more recently delivered an evening of Broadway hits.

Some may call it crossover (and what’s wrong with that?), but I call it great musicians playing great American music. And in these days of the incredible shrinking pit orchestra, it's a real treat to hear a full orchestra let loose on a Broadway show. The fact that some interesting actors (including Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks, and Martha Plimpton) get to join the Philharmonic to strutt their musical theater stuff doesn’t hurt, either.

Later on in April, you can hear the New York Philharmonic return to its roots with a piece of Mahler's. I'll drink to that.

What do you think about this trend?

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Comments [22]

Robert Marcus from Brooklyn, NY

Absolutely Show Tunes are needed. I love Boulez and Currier but I also think that some show tunes are America's greatest arias.
Even pop songs. I left My Heart in San Francisco, is one of the very best arias ever written (with introduction included) so is Stardust (Hoagy Charmichael(sp?)), Moon River (Manicini), When I'm Taking Sugar to Tea (Duke Ellington), Over the Rainbow and many more.

May. 31 2011 12:57 AM
George Reber from Chatham NJ

Having attended a "Tribute to John Williams" last Saturday at NJPAC I was astounded by his volume of work.
More great music like this should be played. WQXR does an outstanding job of airing the more popular "classical" works and could add classic show tunes occasionally

Apr. 20 2011 10:29 PM
Michael Meltzer

I have to point out that in many of the comments, supporters of show music are taking their eye off the ball.
There are many comments supporting show music inclusion in classical programs. There are no opposite and equal comments supporting including Beethoven Symphonies and Bach Brandenburg Concerti in "Pops" concerts.
Symphony orchestras can have a "pops" additional adjunct orchestra schedule to please those devotees, without crowding out classical selections from classical programs already too few in number.

Apr. 19 2011 06:38 PM
Vera Sullivan

I love beautiful music played by talented musicans. Like anything that is exquisite, you know it when you hear it. It moves you. It can be classical, Broadway music or sublime jazz.

I love classical music and show music and love the fact that symphony orchestras are giving show tunes their take. It adds to the good.

I have been listening to WQXR since I was a little girl and have always loved the programming. WQXR has been my favorite station my entire life.

The new WQXR is wonderful and updating with the times.

May God bless WQXR with many more good years ahead.

Apr. 19 2011 05:54 PM
Michael Meltzer

Somehow I omitted from my anti-shopping list the classical junk I complain about most frequently: the gratuitous, inappropriate, milktoast transcriptions of masterpieces for piano solo or chamber ensemble, whether they be for large orchestra or two guitars.
Since we're quoting e.e.cummings of late, taste in homogenized transcriptions always brings to mind "Beauty hurts Mr. Vinyl."

Apr. 16 2011 03:13 PM
Michael Meltzer

Orchestrating a pop tune soesn''t make it classical, there are issues of architecture, motivic development, contrapuntal treatment that have to be incorporated, then you have a case (some of the work Stan Kenton's arrangers Johnny Richards and Pete Rugolo did in the 1950's makes for interesting study).
To me, the even larger issue than putting classical lipstick on the pop music pig, is the knee-jerk propogation of classical junk: the countless generic bassoon concertos of the Mannheim school, the endless piano fantasies of the early 19th century, the so-called posthumous "discoveries" of famous composers who had sincerely wished that the pieces be burned, and other pieces that meet all the musicological criteria but stink on ice.
Taste may be "subjective," but it's also the whole ball game. If that's a contradiction, my apologies, but I'll stand by it.

Apr. 16 2011 10:31 AM
Robin O. from NJ

If we go deeper into a definition of classical music, we find the connection to how brains and whose brains resonate with this type of music.

Pop music is pop, regardless of its arrangement for instrumentation or vocals. To my brain, it still doesn't resonate. There is no right opinion on this matter because it is so subjective.

From the standpoint of financial stability-- by all means, orchestras must do what it takes to stay solvent. Sometimes that means appealing to the masses. No reason selling more tickets to those concerts shouldn't subsidize the concerts preferred by smaller audiences.

Apr. 14 2011 01:07 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Ah, I can see this discussion slowly morphing into the greater question "What is/makes classical music?"

And I think I see an answer emerging....

Classical music, if I can pick out some pieces of this blog, is not just a question of age. It's becoming apparent that a piece can be considered "classical" if it is arranged for all the voices of an orchestra, or in the case of single or few insturments, uses the techniques of composition and performance established in the classical eras.

Having said that, any modern piece can be made "classical" by its arrangement. That is how Gershwin, West Side Story, scrap metal music or Candide gets to be on WQXR along with Handel and Beethoven.

Apr. 14 2011 08:41 AM
Frank Feldman

Tin Pan Alley composers are not wanting for performances. Serious contemporary ones are.

Apr. 13 2011 06:54 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

There is a good reason why major symphony orchestras throughout the world have their own satellite "POPS" contingent that magically makes the non-classical yet worthwhile popular music sound SO good.
Many complained when Caruso devoted so much of his recording sessions on the music of the day, rather than singing operatic "rep."
John Barrymore and Laurence Olivier were chastised for doing the commercial theater and films, when many thought that they should do more Shakespeare . Albert Einstein would never be expected to spend hids precious creativity time on teaching kindergarten kids math. Let's reserve that limited time and money by classical performers and composers to serious preparation and presentation of works of "cpnsequence" however that may be determined.

Weird and outrageous stagings and set and costume designs that misrepresent the librettist's and the composer's clear intentions will discourage opera performances. People who may hear the performance on radio or records may choose to hear and NOT see the live performance. This would be especially true for tyro opera goers, first-timers, who may have had "enough."

Opera's unquestioned Golden Age of Wagner Performance was the era of the Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr, Kipnis and Branzell "team."

Apr. 12 2011 11:44 PM
Robert Jones

I'm no music expert, but I think I understand why WQXR doesn't plat alot of Broadway music. It's because they're a classical music station.
I personally wish they wouldn't play any, and would stick with real classical music. Same for NYPhil, at least during their regular season at Lincoln Center.
It occurs to me they should consider not just current ticket sales, but also their credibility with their core supporters.

Apr. 12 2011 05:23 PM
Gregg from Astoria Queens

I agree with all of you but:
I have indeed heard the NY Phil conducting Candide, and sometimes the symphonic dances for West Side Story.

A rarity however are the works of composer John Williams, and yes I mean his scores for Star Wars, including the entire series of episodes. And the scores he wrote for the Indiana Jones films.

It happens that they are all old enough to be come classics. (This means that the original film which got most of us started is over 25 years old.)

Writing music for the movies and yes even Broadway shows is an art form. But the way he does his work reminds a lot of us how certain operas were scored.

Apr. 12 2011 05:06 PM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

I think it is great that the NY Phil included B'way music on its program. On WQXR B'way music does go begging unless it is played by a classical orchestra. But nothing with the lyrics. Lyricists are never acknowledged. We hear the finale to Candide but the lyric gives it even more punch.
I think I am right that in Mozart's time Opera was considered musical comedy. Women could perform on this non-classical stage only. But some one will correct me I am sure.

Apr. 11 2011 06:09 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I heartily agree with Mr. Furrer....The beauty is in the arrangement.

Watch any July 4th concert from Boston or D.C. and you will see the violins joining in on a Sousa March. (Although I'm still waiting to hear a Sousa march on WQXR.....Sousa Boy where are you???)

How often do we hear selections from West Side Story or Candide on WQXR, beautifully done by the NY Phil?

Apr. 11 2011 08:06 AM
Michael Meltzer

Ruth Schoenthal's suggestion is the way it is done by many other major orchestras, with an adjunct "pops" orchestra, staffed primarily by musicians from the symphony and having its own series and subscription sales. The Christmas concert always makes a lot of money.

Apr. 07 2011 05:00 PM
Sharron from New York City

The fine playing by an ensemble of NY Philharmonic players for the Michael Tilson Thomas Tomashefsky project performance ought to be formative in this discussion. Music that often inspires eye-rolling and mild exclamations of "oy vey" actually struck this listener as rather inventive, if repetitive and ....well, repetitive. But even less-than brilliant music played by professionals acquires an authority that can define a genre. For the record, the orchestra redeemed what was a production that lacked compelling shape and narration. Laughter was only heard from those seated in the orchestra since all but the music was inaudible in the upper reaches. Mr. Thomas is motivated by the love and gratitude he feels for his late grandmother, but these elements alone do not make for a satisfying evening in the theatre or the concert hall. The heyday of the Yiddish theatre deserves to be understood and admired, but longing for its re-emergence is naive at best, but truly regressive. Popular entertainment exists in the moment of its creation.

Apr. 07 2011 03:15 PM
Ruth Shoenthal from NYC

I have no problem with great orchestras playing show music or doing staged versions of Broadway plays. The New York Phil did "Candide" a few years ago and it was absolutely marvelous. That being said, I would not like show music programmed within a "normal" concert series. Crossover concerts are fine if they are "special" added concerts outside of "normal" programming. They have great appeal and can be an excellent source of sorely needed added revenue for the orchestra.

Apr. 07 2011 11:20 AM
David from Flushing

I have noted in recent years that the music of Richard Rogers has drifted into the classical and operatic realms. This may also happen for other composers, but many living composers do not write for large orchestras and orchestras like to use all their players. Scores from films might be the largest source of crossover material.

Apr. 07 2011 10:02 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

The beautiful Italian and Neopolitan songs are performed on the concert stage today. These were the popular songs of the day. Music is music as long as the presentation is not being trashed.

Apr. 07 2011 09:55 AM
Michael Meltzer

Before comparing the NY Philharmonic with the Sousa Band, certain differences must be noted. The Sousa Band was a touring organization for 39 years, when it performed, its audience of the evening hadn't heard them for some time. It's not at all certain that the inclusion of some "music of the day" had anything to do with its standing-room-only sales. It was the best of its genre in the world, had a genius for a conductor and to hear them on a visit was always a limited opportunity.
Not to take anything away from the Sousa Band, but if it had to perform week after week in the same venue as the NY Phil does, it might not have been the model of financial success that Mr. Furrer proposes the NY Phil emulate, as well as having an artistic agenda that had similarities but was not quite the same.
I think we have apples and oranges here.

Apr. 07 2011 01:37 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

There is a lesson here to be learned that was taught over and over again by John Philip Sousa and His Band one hundred years ago. Perhaps if professional ensembles played more popular repertoire, concert hall seats would be filled and revenue would be up instead of reading about orchestras filing for Chapter 11. An average Sousa Band concert featured nine printed selections including a overture, two solo works, selections from opera and/or operetta, and comtemporary works of the day. Encores were demanded after every number and given like handing out candy to children and most often, 30-35 pieces of music were played before a satisfied audience left for the evening. Sousa's Band was self-sustaining - surviving 39 years on ticket sales alone without benefit of government subsidy. Musicians were paid higher than union scale to attract the best players. There is nothing like a fine orchestra (or concert band) playing music well no matter if it's a Beethoven symphony or selections from "Carousel."

Apr. 06 2011 10:24 PM
Michael Meltzer

Adjectives like "great" are bandied around so carelessly that they lose any meaning except in the most select contexts.
For everything the NY Phil decides to program, there is much that it decides NOT to program.
When popular music that conveys the definite feeling of "dumbing down" replaces selections by living composers, selections which are serious candidates for becoming future "classics," the orchestra is not in keeping with its mission, or its obligation to the quality of its art.
Show music does not go begging for exposure.

Apr. 06 2011 04:07 PM

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