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The Orchestra: A Very Short Introduction

D. Kern Holoman

ISBN 978-0-19-976028-2

OUP £7.99 158pp

The Orchestra. A Very Short Introduction

No orchestra can live that plays only the music of dead composers, says D. Kern Holoman. Throughout his delightful small-format paperback there is a bold awareness of wider context. For example, discussing Ferde GrofĂ©'s Grand Canyon Suite of 1931, popularised by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, Holoman observes: “Its popular appeal rested on the imagery of burro hooves in “On The Trail,” and a bray thrown in for good measure. And, too, because of the Philip Morris cigarette commercials that used it to introduce each episode of I Love Lucy.”

Connections between music and politics are dealt with in the chapter titled ‘Peace’. Here are allusions to the civilization-changing events of revolution and empire that pepper Haydn’s symphonies, to the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, to the monster forces assembled in Berlin to play Beethoven’s Ninth for Hitler’s birthday, through to the cultural diplomacy employed when the Boston Symphony travelled to the Soviet Union in September 1973. Then, the orchestra presented six concerts (including Roy Harris’s Third Symphony) in Beijing and Shanghai.

Holoman debates Palestine and Israel, and Pacifism and Radical Chic. He describes George Solti’s forceful views, and discusses the music composed by Tan Dun on the occasion of the peaceful return of Hong Kong to China by the British, as well as Tan Dun’s appearance with the Baghdad Philharmonic following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Sir Thomas Beecham is quoted as saying: “I never go to concerts other than my own. I find my own are unpleasant enough without listening to others, which I am sure are worse.”  Funny, but shameful. More disgraceful was the Vienna Philharmonic’s position, half a century after World War II, in believing that ethnic and gender purity was at the root of the orchestra’s artistic superiority: “Men carry secrets that are involved with music and tones, just like in Australian aboriginal or Indian cultures, where men play certain instruments, and not the women.”

That our orchestras followed and did not lead societal change is an important point. Breaking the gender barrier was slow in Berlin and Vienna. Mention is made of the arrival of the first women to take the podium of the leading orchestras - after Nadia Boulanger, who premiered Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in 1938. Holoman cites JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop, Xian Zhang, Jane Glover and Sian Edwards.

We are brought up to date on web matters. The concert-finding website bachtrack.com lists, in a given month, some 500 orchestra concerts in 175 leading world venues. We learn that fifty or more of these are in London, twenty-five or so in New York. World wide there are one or two major events each night. Even Norman Lebrecht (“the industry’s sharp-tongued tattletale”) receives a mention for his entry into the blogosphere, Slipped Disc.

D. Kern Holoman is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. His book is short, compact, nicely opinionated, streetwise, a useful pocket companion, and can be highly recommended, though anyone seeking a guide to technical information will be disappointed.

John Robert Brown

Review first published in Classical Music, December 2012. Used by kind permission. No reproduction without permission.

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