Charles Petzold

Bethel Woods Disappoints Again

July 3, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

New Yorkers know that the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 didn't actually take place in Woodstock. The concert happened in Bethel in Sullivan County, not far from where Deirdre and I spend our summers.

Last year the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened on the site of the original Woodstock festival. Bethel Woods is designed as a venue for summer concerts, and in addition to a tedious line-up of geriatric rockers and contemporary snoozers booked for the first year was an appearance by the New York Philharmonic. I was eager to attend until the disappointing program was announced — works of such pure pap that I felt insulted on behalf of everyone in Sullivan County and, indeed, the entire state of New York.

I wanted to complain at the time, but I let it go. I had high hopes for the future. There was some talk that Bethel Woods might become a summer home for the New York Philharmonic, and I felt confident that future programs would display just a tad more intelligence.

Am I naive or what? This coming Saturday the New York Philharmonic will make a second appearance at Bethel Woods with a top ticket price of $95 and the following appalling program:

This reads like a parody of summer concerts! One of two of these works might be acceptable in the context of a regular concert program — perhaps scheduled first or last so it can conveniently be skipped — but I can't imagine anything more torturous than this unrelenting progression of brain-dead music.

I know it's the summer, and summer concerts of classical music are traditionally dumbed down. I know it's the Fourth of July weekend and hence audiences want junk food and fireworks. I know the concert is being played outside of New York City, and hence some assholes feel the concert needs to be dumbed down even more. But if the goal is to build an audience for this music at Bethel Woods, wouldn't it make more sense to program music that reveals just a little of the challenging intellectual and emotional complexity of the Western musical tradition? This crap makes classical music seem like inconsequential fluff.

And why get the New York Philharmonic up here for this? If you're going to play such a program, why not give it to a regional or college orchestra?

It's really not necessary to scrape up the repertoire dregs for a summer concert. There's plenty of music that's loud and raucous enough to penetrate summer-fried brains without condescending to toe-tapping familiarity: Several Beethoven symphonies, for example, Stravinsky's Firebird, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Copland's Symphony No. 3, Mussourgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, either of the Ravel piano concertos.

And perhaps the orchestra can even be daring enough to throw in a short work by an actual living American composer, such as John Adam's The Chairman Dances (perhaps provoking audience members to ask each other "Did you know there's an opera called Nixon in China?").

Of course, everybody knows West Side Story and I'm sure that the music was chosen partially because it's the 50th anniversary of the musical. But why play tunes that everybody's heard a million times? If you're going to play some Bernstein, why not pick some Bernstein nobody hears much, such as the Age of Anxiety Symphony, or the Violin Seranade?

Prokofiev also wrote plenty of good music for grownups. One of the Romeo and Juliet suites is always welcome, or a symphony, or even Lieutenant Kije one more time. I'm even certain there's an alternative Tchaikovsky work that's not pure drivel (although offhand I can't think of one) but what would possess anyone at this point in our history to program such a vulgar glorification of war?

After being disappointed two years in a row, I simply can't muster any hope for next year. Bethel Woods and the New York Philharmonic seem to have decided what type of music is appropriate in this venue, and they have now joined with the forces that are killing classical music in this country.