Friday, November 28, 2008

On the Making of Lists

Whether you’ve been celebrating Black Friday or just hope to survive the holidays to make it to the New Year, you will have to deal with lists.

In addition to hoping you make Santa’s List of Good Little Boys & Girls, you may be twice-checking those shopping lists, things to get for the kids or your folks, for the neighbors or your friends, your co-workers or Aunt Bea whom you see once a year; grocery lists to stock up on supplies for the next feast on the list, along with lists of all the cookies and other holiday trimmings you’ll need by the time you’ve made the list of guests to invite for the Christmas Party and the list with dates of all the parties you’ve been invited to this busy social season. Not to forget the infamous Christmas Card List...

Though the idea of “10-ness” is often inflatable, one way or another, there are thousands of lists of Top 10 Gift Suggestions from every source imaginable (how I hated doing those every year); lists of Top 10 News Events of the Year, Top 10 People of the Year, Top 10 Football Plays of the Year, Top 10 Grossing Films of the Year (or the Top 10 Grossest Films of the Year), Top 10 Most Memorable Performances of the Year, not to mention countless others including the much anticipated Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists.

In addition to store lists and chore lists, much to-do is often made about other kinds of lists. While not very much is made of books in this country, aside from lists of best selling books from the New York Times or the finalists for England’s Booker Prize during the course of the year (and this year, even the Best of the Booker Prizes), the end of a year is usually awash with Top 10 rankings of the best (and worst) dressed celebrities or the hottest (which for those of my readers who are of a certain age does not refer either to their temperature or their box-office clout). Spinning through some of these last week, I noticed most of the comments about the latter lists were primarily calling into question the pulse of those making these decisions since they had clearly overlooked [insert latest teen heart-throb here].

Those of us in the Classical Music World don’t get a network TV Award Show since the commercial market is too small to be worth the effort or the expense, just a casual passing mention on the Grammy Awards – so uneventful are they, there’s usually only one category that’s not released before the broadcast along with the other minor award categories). Even though the Classical Grammy Awards might be politically suspect one way or another, it is the closest thing we have to the Oscars, the Tony Awards, the Country Music Awards, what-have-you.

[“And this year’s Best Composer of the Year Award goes to... (long dramatic pause, audience noticeably hushed in palpable anticipation: drum-roll please) ...Elliott Carter!” and the crowd goes wild as the studio orchestra breaks out in a well-known passage from his Symphonia...]

Recently, the British magazine Gramophone came up with a cover story for its December Issue ranking the Top 20 Orchestras from around the world – the presence of a Japanese Orchestra kept it from being “from across the Western World” – and immediately, the list of those wondering about the veracity of such a list began growing. How were these orchestras selected, on what basis were they placed in this order, who was making the decisions and evaluations – and more importantly, on what grounds: recent live performances, reading reviews, listening to old recordings? Some even wondered about how an orchestra heard (or recorded) in its own hall might sound to a listener when they’re playing in a different hall on tour. And so on.

Unless the rankings are determined by rigid criteria in various categories like those Top 10 Colleges or Places to Live in the USA, taking into account standard-of-living issues, demographic ratios or other aspects that can be statistically compared, anything as subjective as a “best performance” is going to be suspect, especially when it’s not being determined by the same board of judges who would be traveling around the world listening to every orchestra on the planet (or at least those nominated into, say, the 40 Finalists).

[Now there’s a junket I wouldn’t mind serving on...]

Here is what the Gramophone website said about this issue’s cover story:

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It's a classical title showdown! Swapping gloves for glissandi and punches for prestos, players from around the globe square up for the hotly contested spot of World's Best Symphony Orchestra.

Ranking the heavy hitters is by no means an easy task, but Gramophone has manfully taken the job in hand. Our panel of leading music critics comprised: Rob Cowan, James Inverne, James Jolly (all from Gramophone, UK), Alex Ross (the New Yorker, US), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times, US), Wilhelm Sinkovicz (Die Presse, Austria), Renaud Machart (Le Monde, France), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Thiemo Wind (De Telegraaf, the Netherlands), Zhou Yingjuan (editor, Gramophone China) and Soyeon Nam (editor, Gramophone Korea).

To compare like with like, we have limited ourselves to comparing modern romantic orchestras rather than period bands, but apart from that distinction it's a completely open field. The panel have considered the question from all angles - judging concert performances as well as recording output, contributions to local and national communities and the ability to maintain iconic status in an increasingly competitive contemporary climate.

The results have proven fascinating and will no doubt be as controversial as the question itself. But if nothing else, the task gives us all a chance to celebrate the forerunners of exciting, cutting-edge music-making. And that can't be a bad thing…

= = = = = = =

And so the method behind the rankings has been called into question, generating comments, for example, by Angela at TonicBlotter with other references, including Mark at Deceptively Simple, among others.

Now, I rather doubted even a magazine as significant in the eyes of many people in the Classical Music World as the Gramophone is going to spring for a budget to send a panel of experts around the world, considering the financial rewards they’re likely to reap as a result. How else could you manage it? Let’s just regard it as a cover story/marketing ploy and forget about, say, the indignation over the Philadelphia Orchestra’s absence from the list or that one’s home-town orchestra placed lower than another one.

(Quite frankly, out of all these 20 Orchestras, I’ve heard none of them live in recent years. But I had heard the Philadelphia Orchestra live a few times in the past several years and frankly I would not place it on a Top 20 List simply because I didn’t feel they were playing up to what that level implies, regardless of their past glories. Does an orchestra deserve a spot on a Top List simply because of its reputation? Maybe, however, that will change for them with a new conductor and a hopefully better chapter in the orchestra’s internal life.)

And even then, arguments could be made such lists would be suspect because it might have been a bad day for the performers or the judge was reacting to the conductor and not the performance or the fact they played Berlioz and one judge is noted for hating Berlioz.

Even the micro-points Olympic skating judges, for example, now award by computer cannot seriously overcome personal reactions and preferences over sheer technical analyses. If the winner is not determined by who crosses the finish line first with the fastest speed, how do you determine who’s in first place, much less who’s in twelfth?

How many times have I read about this or that piano competition where the first-place winner is deemed a technical automaton but that the second-place winner was far superior as an interpreter? And that No. 6 was by far the hottest?

It always amused me to read an orchestra’s publicity release that would say they are “among the six topped ranked orchestras in the country.” Ah, that means they’re No. 6. Or there’s the generic blurb, “one of the most acclaimed orchestras in the world” – by whom?

For that matter, can the quality of an orchestra be judged by ticket-sales or salary rankings? Has anyone come up with a statistically accurate ratio to compare what they pay the conductor and the executive director with the principal players and the rank-and-file members of the string section? Is an orchestra going to be better than others because this one has a better benefit package for its musicians, that one has a better “work-place-atmosphere” rating from its musicians, or another one has a hotter young conductor than that one?

Or do we do a televised reality show called “Orchestra!” and have viewers phone in to determine which ensemble gets voted off the stage?

With another crucial box-office season upon us for new movie releases, are we going to see films ranked solely by box-office take or by the quality of the film, the expert interpretations of its actors and the skill with which the director realizes the film’s potential? Is this film deemed a better film because more people, what with the bad economy and the political situation around the world, felt like taking in a let-me-check-my-brain-at-the-door comedy with a hot TV personality in it rather than one that’s a thought-provoking-often-cathartic-view-of-some-of-the-basic-core-issues-that-drive-humanity-in-our-world-today kind of film?

What do you think? You be the judge...

Oh, but one word to the folks at Gramophone. I haven’t seen the list as it will appear in the December issue itself, so maybe it’s been corrected, but the way it was reported on other websites, proff-raeders and fact-checkers somewhere missed that one of the Russian orchestras was called by a name it has not been called since 1991 when Leningrad returned to its pre-Revolutionary name, St. Petersburg. I missed that one myself, just noting “huh, the three Russian orchestras were all placed in a clump, Nos. 14-15-16...” Didn’t even see that one of them was the now out-dated Leningrad Philharmonic...

What does that imply?

As a few e-mails I received noted, apparently others feel more strongly about the impact of such a list’s significance. True, as Mrs. Alving told Pastor Manders in a crucial scene in Ibsen’s Ghosts, arguing against the rigidity of his old-fashioned moral precepts, all she wanted to do was pull at one tiny loose thread and then realized, after the fabric came undone, it was only machine made.

But as imperfect as modern-day clothing can be - another thing I need to add to a list: buy thread to sew the buttons back on a new shirt purchased a few weeks ago that failed to survive its first round through the laundry - it may be better to wear what we have rather than go naked in the world. As Mark Twain said, “naked people have little or no influence on society.”

So perhaps it’s best to bear with it, realizing that all lists are relative, just celebrate the music-making of twenty fine orchestras and be done with it.

Now, where is that list of Top 20 Living Composers?

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