Wednesday, June 04, 2008

cowboys and obscure Indian music

This week the CPO is wrapping up the season with a few run-out concerts -- Pops in the Park at the Heritage Park Historical Village yesterday evening and today, then Beethoven in the Badlands in Drumheller on Saturday. (We kind of have an alliteration addiction at the CPO.) You can find more details at the CPO's website.

One of the pieces on the Pops in the Park program is the third movement from the Edward MacDowell Indian Suite. Looking the piece up on Google, there's not a whole lot -- though there is this review of a New York Philharmonic performance in 1914:

MacDowell's suite was heard with interest and pleasure. It does not, in the course of time, seem quite to justify the unmeasured praises of his indiscriminate admirers; but it is perhaps his best piece of orchestral writing. In nothing else has he written with so sure a touch and with so ample a command of rich, delicate, and varied color. The suite is especially valuable as a demonstration of what can be done with "Indian music" as artistic material. Indian music is mostly not very musical -- hard, rude, and unyielding to treatment. It was not, in truth, very plastic in MacDowell's hands; but nobody else has treated it with so much skill or so much success. He has molded it into something really musical, and has given the several movements something of the character that he sought and expressed in their titles. But it is to be observed that after this suite he did not throw himself heart and soul into making "American music" out of Indian tunes, and seems to have thought this experiment in ethnology sufficiently successful to leave without a successor.

-- from the New York Times archives online: "Philharmonic Concert: MacDowell's Indian Suite Heard", December 7, 1914

I suppose a piece based on the music of an entire race -- or many races, since 'Indian' covers a huge variety of people and cultures -- is bound to be a bit racist. Or at least attract some racist music reviews. Worth noting here, though, is the use of the barbed compliment, that critic's trick of starting out positive then slipping in a nasty little aside. Usually it's some disparaging remark about the horn section, but here an entire civilization gets slammed.

For our Pops concert, the piece fit into a Western, cowboy-themed program. Conductor Pierre Simard tends to sneak in works that are bizarrely obscure, though thematically connected, on pops programs. (For example, there was his infamous sheep program.) Introducing MacDowell's "Indian Suite", Pierre didn't bring up the whole legacy of white oppression and cultural appropriation. Instead, he mentioned that he had never heard the piece before that morning, nor had anyone in the orchestra. It seemed like a slightly embarrassing thing to admit, though I'm not sure if it's more embarrassing for us or for Edward MacDowell, who seems to have fallen somewhat out of fashion since 1914. The audience may have been a little astonished that we'd thrown it together on so little rehearsal. Still, they seemed to enjoy hearing the piece, in a measured, discriminate sort of way.

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