Winds of Change
My last column, a broadside against the sterility of the classical piano recital, engendered a lot of comment (see Letters to the Editor, Jan/Feb 2013 and page six of this issue). I'm grateful to those who agreed with me, and I thank those who didn't as well. The trouble is it's hard to be subtle in an 1,100-word column. I went for the Big Effect and perhaps it paid off, since readers thought about the matter and took the time to respond. I'm neither a Philistine nor a Jeremiah, but may plead guilty to rabble-rouser, taking after Pierre Boulez, whose cri de coeur to burn down the opera houses makes my little effort seem polite in comparison.
To quote Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy, "I just wanna beloved—is that so wrong?!" More precisely, I want this music we pianists and teachers love so much to be loved by more people than currently do.1 As long as we stay in the academy or close to a large city with decent performing arts organizations, we can continue to think that classical music is alive and, if not well, at least stumbling along. Outside of these havens, ask someone how they feel about Beethoven and you are likely to get a really strange look. Ask the same person about Steve Aoki, or Deadmau5, or Skrillex, and you might be on far safer ground.2
It's the old highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy. Even without knowing Deadmau5 (pronounced "dead-mouse"), I'd be willing to state categorically that Beethoven is better, but is it safe to say, in today's world, that some music is better than other music?3 Could one goon to suggest that an afternoon of listening to Mitsuko Uchida play the last three Schubert sonatas should be one of life's great gifts?4
Sociologist and cultural commentator Dr. Tiffany Jenkins wrote an extremely interesting piece entitled "Making a Case for High Art" in the December 28, 2012, online edition of The Scotsman.5 She begins by describing a troupe of young opera singers who, to sell tickets to their under-subscribed performance at an Edinburgh arts festival, ventured out into the lawn areas and actually sang some of their arias to the lounging sun-seekers.
At first, the audience looked on skeptically, but after a few really good tunes, the singers made friends with the audience. People started buying tickets, and the next show was sold out. An encouraging tale, until one reads that the musicians admitted to Ms. Jenkins their extreme embarrassment in singing for their supper. One practically apologized: "It's not street dance, nor comedy, but it is good."6 They were competing in the open marketplace where their art form pales in popularity to the overwhelming numbers who only know popular music. I can well imagine their embarrassment, even shame. I also cannot praise their courage highly enough. They went out after their audience.
This brings me back to the Uchida recital and why I was so incensed. It was the isolation of the event, its lack of connection to a broader representation of society than those who showed up at Chicago's Symphony Center to hear these glorious pieces. The usual suspects were there, and I'm glad we were. Borrowing from another metaphor we've heard a lot recently, the Uchida recital was fine if you were part of the one percent. Given a metropolitan population of more than nine million, it was more like one-hundreth of one percent, but who's counting? What about the other ninety-nine percent? How do we get Schubert into the mainstream?
My last column suggested that maybe we should relax the recital rituals a bit and see what happens. Granted, that's akin to throwing a glass of water into Niagara Falls, but you have to start some-where. Why must Schubert as High Art be cordoned off, given reverential treatment, turned into something that those sun-seekers would find a sad alternative to basking in the warmth on a green lawn? Would an artist of Uchida's standing play a few Ländler on an amplified keyboard in Grant Park next time to bring in a few who might find the recital experience life-changing?7
Another essay question for you: if Adele were to sing Gretchen am Spinnrade, could Schubert hit the Top Ten?8 If Schubert were popular to the masses, would he still be Schubert to the cognoscenti? Discuss.
The usual distinction between high and low art9 differentiates between art that rewards reflection versus that which gives immediate gratification. Pop is instantly appreciable, understood. It may strongly reflect the current societal moment; indeed it often is a stand-in for the Zeitgeist (think of how the BeeGees instantly take you back to the late '70s).10 It doesn't stretch us or tell us anything new. High art,while having plenty of surface appeal if you are open to it, rewards contemplation. It forces us to stretch if we are to come to terms with it. Contemporary high art should tell us some-thing new; often we're uncomfortable with the message. Truly significant art can take us out of the mundane into—dare I say it?—a more spiritual realm. I don't entirely trust a statement like that—define "spiritual!"
Perhaps I should just give up and accept that some music will never appeal to the masses (there will always be a highbrow/low-brow separation) and I should therefore be grateful that I live in a time when Uchida can play the last three Schubert sonatas and an audience, however small, will turn out.11 Ultimately, it's the market that allows it to happen. There are just enough people willing to pay for The Recital Experience (whether you like it just the way it is or think it's boring) that Ms. Uchida can make a living, the presenting organization can stay afloat between ticket sales, donors, and grants, and we'll all come back next time. I just don't think this can last.
If I want to do something about it myself, I—and I think the rest of us—have to be willing to do what those young opera singers Robert did in Edinburgh: go out after an audience, win them over, fight for their attention amidst all the noise of the popular moment. You do that one person at a time. None of us has to play in Symphony Center to do it. It's just that this music really is good. Better, in fact,than Deadmau5.
Is that so wrong?12
1 Accusation No. 1: Isn't this cultural imperialism? Excellent subject for readers' responsesor a future column. Bring it on!
2 Full disclosure: I've never heard of any of these, but they were all up for a 2012 Grammy in the Best Dance/Electronica category (see http://www.grammy.com/nominees). This suggests that I am way out of the mainstream and should perhaps consider becoming a full-time hermit instead of occasional rabble-rouser.
3 Accusation No. 2: Dude, this is so politically incorrect! Who do you think you are?
4 Accusation No. 3: Last month you said it was boring! Where do you stand?
7 If you've never heard of Joshua Bell playing in the Washington D.C. subway as a busker,you owe it to yourself to check out http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/bell.asp orhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myq8upzJDJc
8 Even this hermit knows who Adele is!
9 Accusation No. 4: Again with the politically incorrect! Can't you find less inflammatory words? High (sacred), low (common, vulgar). Get a thesaurus!
10 I couldn't tell you the pop music that identifies today. Perhaps I'm afraid to know. See footnote 2.
11 And assumedly will again when Paul Lewis plays the same program in the same hall about a year to the day later in March 2013—I feel as though I should go as penance for having had such a fit about it last year.
12 Why all the footnotes? The subject is too hydra-headed; just as you think you've man-aged to make one point, several other points rear into view. It was Fitzgerald who said "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." A fine goal, that.