Modernizing classical music, traveling to the theater

Kenji Bunch talks about the condition of classical music and "All the Way" opens on Broadway

We keep coming back to certain debates. One of them has to do with the future of classical music, by which we mean “music consciously connected to the long “serious music” history in the West.” I suppose. Any definition cries out for yet more definition, specifics, details. However you parse it, though, the financial problems at the major classical music institutions and our sense that the form isn’t as central to the culture as it should be seem to become more acute by the day. So, today’s News & Notes relates to that ongoing discussion. And we’ll take a peek at the reviews for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival-commissioned, Bill Rauch-directed Broadway show, All the Way, which stars Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson, and we’ll link you to Portland’s traveling theater man Jon Kretzu’s latest travels.

Various voices at ArtsWatch, not least critic/editor Brett Campbell, have been raised to argue that the vitality of classical music depends on the commitment of its advocates and artists to engage with today’s audiences ever more deeply. The latest formulation comes from composer/musician Kenji Bunch, and a link to his ArtsWatch essay popped up on ArtsJournal, which means it has reached a national audience.

What if we attempted to recognize that what they’re listening to actually has value and commonality with our music, and that their emotional experience in listening to it is just as valid and not subordinate to our own tastes? If a 16-year old girl gets misty-eyed listening to A Great Big World’s “Say Something” on her car stereo, are her tears any less legitimate than those of a gray-haired concertgoer listening reverently to “Missa Solemnis?”

Another way to say this: The classical music world can’t argue that other musical worlds (jazz, hip-hop, pop, folk, world, etc.) should keep an open mind about classical music, if it doesn’t keep an open mind itself.

Tardis Ensemble performed at March Music Moderne on Sunday.

Tardis Ensemble performed at March Music Moderne on Sunday.

As perhaps you could tell from Brett Campbell’s MusicWatch column on Friday, ArtsWatch loves itself some March Music Moderne. This event is intrinsically related to Kenji Bunch’s essay! (And so is Jana Hanchett’s interview with pianist Paul Roberts.)

The first reviews of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, the first Oregon Shakespeare Festival commission from its American Revolutions cycle to make it to Broadway, have started landing. All of them seem to love Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston’s portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson, though maybe they wish Schenkkan had streamlined the material a bit.

Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times tries to have it both ways: “People unfamiliar with the politicking behind the passage of the bill will probably find the play’s intricate, admirably lucid parsing of the president’s maneuvering more engrossing than those who have studied it thoroughly. Nevertheless, All the Way will probably have even policy wonks nodding with pleasure: Broadway rafters rarely ring with references to cloture and filibusters, and the mechanisms by which bills can be jimmied from the stranglehold of committees.” But he also compares it to “an overstuffed congressional bill.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones sounds less conflicted about the play (which we must add, was directed on Broadway as at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival by festival artistic director Bill Rauch): “But what this play (which I think is Schenkkan’s best drama to date) does better than most political biographies is find the germs of the future in very specific issues of the past — in this case, the Democratic Party’s loss of the South after it force-fed that region the very bill with which this play is concerned.” Nice.

One more: Jesse Green’s review for Vulture, which is both genuinely enthusiastic about the play as a whole and more critical of the second act. Green starts: “Nevertheless, thanks largely to a titanic central performance by Bryan Cranston, it pulls off an astonishing double trick. Following in the path of such reevaluations as Robert Caro’s monumental Johnson biography, it restores to our 36th president a tragic, even Shakespearean greatness. And it restores to the theater a great tradition of history plays, from Richard III on, that make thrilling the means of politics, if not always its ends.” And speaking of ends, or rather endings: “By the last fifteen minutes, the dramaturgy is reduced to choral recitations of poll numbers — and surely confetti cannons after two and a half hours are a sign of theatrical exhaustion.”

Jon Kretzu saw Nathan Lane in "The Nance."/ Photo: Joan Marcus

Jon Kretzu saw Nathan Lane in “The Nance.”/ Photo: Joan Marcus

Theater isn’t the most portable of art forms, of course, so we don’t have a good idea about performance trends, practices and qualities in other places. That’s where the peripatetic Jon Kretzu comes in: The Portland theater director travels widely and drops in on as much theater as he can. He wrote this report for ArtsWatch from New York, London and Stratford.

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