Lincoln Center: A Shorty History and Reflection by Anthony Tommasini

Yesterday’s arts section in the New York Times had a nice reflection on Lincoln Center by Anthony Tommasini.  In it he talks about criticism leveled at the performing arts center and then spends time reflecting on -and largely rejecting- these criticisms. I’ll take a look at some of his conclusions and add some of my own.

Nothing can be more energizing to the cultural life of a city than dynamic performing arts institutions. But the danger in grouping them together is that the creative identities of individual institutions — a bold modern dance company, a great symphony orchestra — can blur behind the walls of an officious encampment. The promise of arts organizations working in sync can become a daily grind of competing boards and directors stifled by bureaucracy.

These are the fair complaints that have been leveled at Lincoln Center and at cultural complexes that followed in other cities. Still, there is potential for synergy between performing arts institutions that share a common campus and a board of overseers. Lincoln Center was conceived with that vision. And today that spirit can best be felt each summer with the Lincoln Center Festival, when member institutions devise innovative, collaborative projects and presentations.

Lincoln center, and the organizations that inhabit it do put on interesting performances now and again.  Most of the great living contemporary composers get play time in the center, but I would hardly, ever, call what Lincoln Center does “innovative”. Moving on, Mr. Tommasini talks about the NY City Opera:

But the struggling New York City Opera has been an unhappy fit at Lincoln Center since it moved to the New York State Theater (now renovated and renamed the David H. Koch Theater) in 1966. Its previous home, New York City Center, was far from a proper opera house, but the company had a feisty character there. At Lincoln Center, City Opera has long been the junior partner in a skewed arrangement with New York City Ballet. Being literally in the shadow of the Met has made it harder for City Opera to show the public that it is not a lesser Met but an alternative company with a different mission and inventive ethos.

Being in the shadow of The Met is a good perception by Mr. Tommanasini.  This is because everything in Lincoln Center is in The Met’s shadow, whether it be quality of performance or facilities.  One thing that Mr. Tommasini overlooks is the terrible acoustics of the stage.  The New York City Opera has trouble putting on stunning performances (and then developing an enthusiastic concert-going base or favorable reviews) because the stage is dead.  This shouldn’t be surprising though, as it was built for the Ballet whom the NYC Opera shares the Koch Theater with.  When originally built, the acoustical goal was to muffle the sound of the dancer’s feet:

To her surprise, Sills says, she learned that ”a lot of the constituents were unhappy,” and perhaps none more so than City Opera, which felt that it was trapped in an acoustical prison. The State Theater had been built for dance, and the stage that muffled the sounds of dancers’ feet so effectively also muffled the sounds of singers’ voices, or so officials with City Opera contended. They wanted their own opera house on the Lincoln Center campus, which meant a new building in Damrosch Park, a corner of green snug against one flank of the Metropolitan Opera.

This is a glaring issue for the lead roles when singing, as when the tenor attempts a forte in the high range of his voice, all he gets is a whimper in the house.  Listening to an opera on that stage is much like sitting in the nosebleeds of Avery Fisher, an experience that forces listeners home to their recordings.  This is most likely why the NYC Opera has now resorted to sound-reinforcement.  On to the NY Phil, and it’s similar problems:

The inadequacy of Avery Fisher Hall’s current acoustics is greatly exaggerated. On a good night, when the Philharmonic is inspired, the sound has richness, clarity and presence. Did anyone in the audience think about acoustics in January when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the orchestra in an electrifying performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony?

A bigger problem, reflecting the downside of being one of many Lincoln Center constituents, is the way the Philharmonic’s tenant status is affecting the renovation of Avery Fisher. Plans are stuck in place because the orchestra and the center have been unable to agree on the nature and extent of the project.

I am in total disagreement with Mr. Tommasini here.  Avery Fisher might be the most boring place to listen to music, especially if you are in the balconies.  I believe his perception about how the acoustics really sound up there with the common folk is likely skewed, since he is given tickets by the NY Phil in the prime orchestra seating. This is the only section of the house where anything sounds decent.  Everything at the top of the house sounds like the distant fiddling of Muzak, as all the richness and clarity that he says the orchestra can get, bleeds into dry banality.  This is not so in the Met, nor Carnegie hall.

Moving forward, he quotes the vice-president of Lincoln Center (who naturally boosts for the institution).

“Having these arts organizations together, with this über identity, has absolutely brought in new audiences,” she added, calling it an “extraordinarily democratic approach to the arts.”

But it could also be argued that the complex’s citadel-like feeling has deterred potential audiences. With its institutional appearance, Lincoln Center does not look at first glance like a place for innovative or experimental work.

And yet, thanks in part to Ms. Moss, the center has been a hotbed of unusual programming and creative educational projects for the last 15 years. It is significant, though, that some of the most daring recent presentations have occurred off campus, like last summer’s multimedia production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s visionary, complex modernist opera “Die Soldaten,” which the Lincoln Center Festival presented in the Park Avenue Armory.

First, Lincoln Center as an idea and operation is not a democratic approach to the arts.  It’s fairly clear from the programming of new works (even works written after 1950) and the tepid response from audiences that it is musical curators deeming what is significant art rather than people voting (which they do with their hands after a performance).

Second, citing an example of “innovation” with a “modernist” opera is an oxymoron.  Modernism died nearly 60 years ago, it should be considered old music like romanticism.  To move forward in music, we need to escape the idea that the shocking, depressed or gruesome is new and edgy.

Though it seems I am a Lincoln Center hater, I think The Met is incredible.  Additionally, the re-opening of Alice-Tully, and Tommasini says this too, is incredibly promising, as chamber and small ensemble works are usually the most progressive.  On top of that, having large institutions that can foot the big bills for great works is a tremendous asset for the arts community, but I would never suggest that they are on the vanguard of musical progression.

2 comments to Lincoln Center: A Shorty History and Reflection by Anthony Tommasini

  • Richard

    Modernism I think was a flawed musical tag from the start, as it implied that somehow this aesthetic phase was somehow the final, “modern” style. I completely agree about escaping the ideas of modernist music being the only new music. My biggest problem with “experimental” music is that I’ve heard the same experimental music for 50 years. No one would consider a 50 year experiment in any other field groundbreaking. The gestures that comprised a bulk of the modernist musical language are cliches by this point, too safe to be edgy and too unpleasant to attract a steady audience.

    I feel like you would like this composer:

  • I agree, to a certain extent. At this point, saying modernist, to me, is more referential to the aesthetic than representative of the ideas or philosophy that created the implication of a “final” modern style. I think that the reasons you state in the second part of your paragraph are why I believe this. Because modernism and post-modernism have been around for a long time, they are no longer representative of the implications that the word -dictionary wise- means.

    I liked the works by Martin Kennedy, though the works did sound a bit like movie music, this is not necessarily a bad thing as an eclectic aesthetic is an interesting idea for art music, it just hasn’t been worked into an artistic movement or an influential style.