Purpose of Reviewing Performances — for the Public, for the Musicians, for Historical Context?

On March 19, 1937, Olin Downes, a New York Times music critic, wrote a glowing review of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York’s performance of an all-Strauss program. This subscription season program was performed between March 18–21, 1937, with Artur Rodzinski conducting at Carnegie Hall. A digital copy of the program is accessible through the New York Philharmonic’s Leon Levy Digital Archives, though I will forewarn you that the scan is of less-than desirable quality, but still legible. Works performed included the tone-poem Don Juan; “Salome’s Dance” from the music drama Salome; and a set of excerpts from Strauss’s 1909 opera, Elektra. Whereas I am admittedly not overly familiar with Elektra, Downes writes in the subtitle that these excerpts could be considered the opera in its concert form. For more context, which I entirely intend discussing in this post, Strauss’s Elektra in its operatic setting received its premiere in 1909, yet its New York City premiere was on December 3, 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting the Metropolitan Opera.

What initially interested me in this article is the cleverly placed subtitle: “Audience Cheers 10 Minutes After Close of Strauss’s Opera in Concert Form.” Though we are far away from this era, when mass media was dominated by word of mouth or by newspapers, I see this specific title as being a “Preaching to the Choir” moment for Downes. What I mean by that is related to what goes on in the media today: people will form opinions on material before reading it, and therefore will read what is appealing to them through this bias. Given the material we have already examined, namely reviews about Mahler and Strauss written by Richard Aldrich and Aaron Copland, it seems that Strauss was very favorably viewed by the people of New York in the first decades of the 20th Century. In this sense, Downes likely gained more readers simply because of his mentioning of Strauss’s Elektra, in addition to the overt description of The Result of the performance; intense applause from an audience that (generally) already loves Strauss. To take away from this claim: everything has context, and being aware of the social context surrounding any published material is critical to forming an unbiased opinion about the source. I referenced a similar situation regarding Copland “Defending” the compositional choices at the end of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in a letter to the editor of the New York Times. In this situation, I believe Copland was not defending Mahler, but rather defending his own musical choices at the end of his similarly sounding Music for the Theatre, which coincidentally came out just after his letter.

Another element of this review is looking explicitly at the quality of the performance, which Downes spends the majority of his page discussing. It also perhaps shows the ‘datedness’ of this article, as nowadays the New York Philharmonic is one of the finest orchestras on the planet. Downes, at this point and time, disagrees: “The orchestra played gloriously, as it seldom has played of late and never before this season. . . [The orchestra’s new dramatic style] is to be laid at the door of Mr. Rodzinsky as conductor.” (Second column, third complete paragraph). Though there unfortunately would not be many (if any) recordings from this period in the NYP’s development, I cannot help but be curious why the orchestra, one playing at Carnegie Hall of all places, could be described by Downes in this manner. In the last paragraph of his article, he additionally writes that the Philharmonic-Symphony’s season “has been of very uneven merit and of many exhibitions of mediocrity.” Without a more thorough examination of reviews and recordings where they exist, it is impossible to blame a specific party. However, musicians being ‘treated’ to an all-Strauss program could have created a newfound appreciation for ‘Modern Music’ or at the very least, extra motivation to perform well. We often talk about the Western Art Music-consuming public’s point of view, or even the compositional point of view. In this situation, is it possible where we can indirectly ‘hear’ evidence of an orchestral musician’s tastes developing?

Original Document:

By, Olin Downes. “‘ELEKTRA’ IS GIVEN BY PHILHARMONIC: Audience Cheers 10 Minutes After Close Of Strauss’s Opera In Concert Form Rosa Pauly Makes Debut Viennese Star Sings Title Role At Head Of Notable Cast Assisting Orchestra Finest Performance Here Unity of Singer And Conductor Others In The Cast Klara Kwartin Gives Recital.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Mar 19, 1937. 26.

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