Friday, July 31, 2009

Mad Men and American Music

One of the things that makes the show Mad Men so intriguing is its detailed depiction of early-1960s New York. In a post on his blog Classically Hip, John Clare dug through the New York Philharmonic's website to find the programs of concerts by the Phil in 1960 and 1961, the years that the first two seasons of Mad Men are set in. It's fun to imagine Don Draper and his pals out with clients, or mistresses, in a first-tier company box at Carnegie Hall, waiting for Bernstein to take the stage.

The New York Philharmonic seems to have really gotten into the Mad Men spirit: over the last couple of seasons, they've been programming almost the exact same music as they did nearly 50 years ago. Back in March 1961, Bernstein brought Pierre Boulez's Pli selon pli, written only a few years before, to the US for the first time, and opened the season with his own overture to Candide and Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3 (composed in 1939 by a composer still very much active in 1960).

A few weeks later, the conductor and company celebrated the 50th birthdays of both William Schuman and Samuel Barber.

Last September, Avery Fisher audiences heard the second "improvisation" from Boulez's avant-garde meditation on Mallarme,

and more music by Bernstein as part of Carnegie Hall's Bernstein festival. This season in the fall, the Phil makes Charles Ives the focus of a concert, but he died in 1954 and stopped composing almost 100 years ago.

Comparing what's happening now to the 1960-'61 season, three things jump out at me: one, that the concert-music scene in the early '60s was exciting; two, that Bernstein really was a true champion of American music; and three, that we're still too chicken to follow the example Bernstein set.

Where are the American symphonists that Bernstein tried to wedge into the canon? I get that Ives is really important, but he's not the only great American orchestral composer. A lot of composers in the 20th century wagered a lot of time writing interesting, breathtaking music in the belief that the orchestra could be a truly American institution. Letting people enjoy their work will go a long way to showing everyone that they weren't mad to do so.