Thursday, October 1, 2009

String of Quartets, Public Options

This evening closed out an intense week of strings for this concert-goer...almost all of it nineteenth century, and all of it gloriously Teutonic. Last Thursday the always reliable Takacs Quartet performed Beethoven's Op. 18 no. 2 and Op. 74 and Schumann's Op. 41 no. 1 at Richardson here in Princeton. On Saturday, I heard the New York Phil offer the Brahms Violin Concerto and Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande (Alan Gilbert conducing, Frank Peter Zimmerman on violin). And tonight again at Richardson the energetic Brentano Quartet played Haydn's Op. 20 No. 3 and Schubert's massive G Major quartet D. 887.

Other people more qualified than I can tell you about these pieces, all of which were wonderful in different ways. And way too much ink has been spilled about these composers for me to add anything meaningful to the conversation. So let's talk about the other stuff. Like patronage and stability, and public access to the arts even amidst the Great Recession.

The Brentano musicians were dressed casually (good for them!!), but this is one occasion when white tie and tails would have actually been appropriate, since they were truly playing for their supper as the "ensemble in residence" here at Princeton. Part of their obligations as resident ensemble is to put on a certain number of performances on campus each semester. The Takacs quartet apparently has a similar position at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It's hard to talk about the New York Phil in similar terms, but every symphony, especially those employed 52 weeks a year, is a kind of macro ensemble-in-residence when you think about it.

I can only imagine how stabilizing it must be for ensembles like the Brenato and Takacs to have a home-base such as a university, especially in a bum economy like we have now. Even if they lose a few gigs here and there due to presenters cutting back, they know they have something in the bag. Similar for orchestral musicians: grouse as you like about musicians unions, strong unions and contracts do make sure that we don't lose our orchestras when the going gets tough. Institutional support is ultimately stabilizing for both performers AND the public...instead of waiting in breadlines, we still get to go out to eat.

The Takacs performance was basically free for me (thanks to one of my student ticket vouchers) and the Brentano was free for anyone who cared to show up. And even my ticket for the New York Phil was only $25. How amazing that Kultur can survive even dismal news as a 23 percent decline in the endowment and depressingly minuscule governmental support for the arts.

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