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June 18, 2007

A sports moment

by Greg Sandow

It's Friday night, and I'm sitting in my apartment with a guy named Bill, watching the Mets play the Yankees. Bill is married to my wife's best friend from high school, and the whole family -- Bill, Tina, and their two teenage kids -- have been visiting us all week. They're working people from New Mexico, and this is their first trip to New York. We've had a terrific time, and Bill and I have bonded. We've each adopted a role --I'm the New York guy, he's the redneck (his word for himself, not mine). And we find that our two perspectives come together more often than we'd expected.

Bill doesn't follow the Yankees or the Mets, but of course he knows baseball, and I can bring him quickly up to speed on the backstory of the game. A lot of sports is stories -- stories and personalities. Bill and I stake out our views on the players and the broadcasters. We comment on the plays. And after the game, when we watch the Mets being interviewed. Two young Hispanic players --Jose Reyes and Carlos Gomez --just about jump out of their skins with excitement, and a third, Oliver Perez, tries really hard not to. He's the winning pitcher. He beat Roger Clemens! He's going to show he's tough and responsible, and Bill and I smile at him.

Then they interview Billy Wagner, the Mets' closer. "You'll see he's different from the others," I say. "He's a redneck." Wagner starts drawling, and Bill says, with a happy laugh, "He sounds like a NASCAR driver!"

This is how you bond over baseball. Nothing could be easier. Nobody has to do anything special to encourage this bonding -- not the players, not the teams, not Major League Baseball as a corporate entity. If anything, in fact, the baseball authorities discourage it a bit, by (to judge from the interviews we see) encouraging the players to hide their personalities. (Oliver Perez has to talk as if he wasn't buzzed about the game. He just concentrated on making his pitches, he says, and he did it all for the team.)

But the game is transparent, to the millions of people who care about it, and it's easy to jump in. Last night my wife and I tune in to the Mets/Yankees game, and -- as the Yankees' pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, demolishes the Mets -- we find we disagree about his eyes. I think they're ferocious, Anne thinks he just looks businesslike. Bill says that if he comes across an amateur softball game, or even a Little League game, he'll often stop to watch. I do the same thing. You get drawn in, we agree. You don't have to know who the teams are, or even what the score is. You get caught in the drama of the batter and the pitcher.


So now suppose Bill and I were flipping channels, and a classical music telecast came on. (One of the rare ones, these days.) Could we have bonded over that?

A lot of people, I suspect, will say we wouldn't bond. Bill isn't a classical music listener. He might not know the composers, the instruments, the musical forms. Maybe he's not used to following a musical span of 10 or 20 minutes -- which would assume he'd never listened to the Grateful Dead. And in fact all these assumptions are more than a little patronizing, since Bill actually does know a lot about music (even if the music involved isn't classical), and we talked for a while about watching cricket on TV, a game neither of us has much background in.

But fine. He's not a classical music guy, and maybe he wouldn't get into classical music on TV. But I don't think the music is the problem. It's the presentation, by which I don't only mean the way the music is telecast, but what the musicians do. Nothing happens on the screen. If we watched an orchestra, the players would be doing what Oliver Perez couldn't quite manage -- hiding their personalities, looking blank. We wouldn't see them smile at each other, or at the music. We wouldn't see them move with the rhythm, or express themselves in any way with their bodies and their faces. That's forbidden! Quite literally so -- my Juilliard students tell me that their teachers forbid anything like that, even in solo playing.

This is a key belief in classical music orthodoxy -- an ideology, by the way, that was wonderfully evoked by Robert Levine's deep, since belief, expressed in a post yesterday, that the arts evolved from religious ceremonies. It's the music that counts (the masterworks of the great composers), and not the performers. So performers are taught to restrict themselves, to hide their individuality. And no, I'm not saying that there isn't individuality in classical performance (please, I've been in this business too long and love the music too much and know far too much about it to believe anything that dumb).

But it's a restricted kind of individuality, most likely to register with people who already know the music being played, or at least other music in the same style, and who thus can compare the oboe solo they're hearing now with others of its kind, played by other oboists. I can do that. But what's likely to strike outsiders, on the other hand, is how restricted everyone's expression is, how deliberately everybody seems to rein themselves in. And they're not wrong! That's what's really happening, compared to musical performances in other genres.


And this is a problem, if you ask me. I don't think art descends from religion -- and to the extent that some of it does, we should acknowledge that religious ceremonies have in the past and in other cultures been far more arousing than they are now in the white western world. (I'm specifying white culture here, because we have the magnificent example of African-American churches to show that even in our own world, religion can be wild and rousing, just as wild as many kinds of entertainment.) Even in our own past, religion was arousing.

And many of the classical masterworks -- just about every note, apart from church music, that Handel and Haydn ever wrote, just for instance -- were designed as entertainment, not as art. (And Handel's oratorios in fact did function pretty much as entertainment.)

For most of classical music's history, people went to hear personalities, not repertoire. Only in the 19th century did the concept of great masterworks arise. What were things like before that? Well, suppose you lived in London in the middle of the 18th century. If you went to hear an opera, you went because Handel, who had written it, was a star. The opera would be new, and nobody who heard it, including the composer, would think that there was any great chance of ever hearing it again. There wasn't any repertoire of standard works, or even recent hits. You went to see performances, at which you'd hear music newly written for the occasion.

So here you are at a Handel opera. As I've said, Handel was a star, and one of the attractions would be to see him leading the show from the harpsichord, improvising everything he played, often spectacularly.

The singers, too, would be spectacular, both as vocalists and as personalities. You'd talk about their costumes, which might be scandalous, or on the other hand might set fashion trends. (Well, maybe they might be scandalous and set trends.) You'd shout things at the singers while they sang. Maybe the singers would get into fights on stage. Hadn't that happened just last week, in the presence of the Prince of Wales? Silly of Handel to import not just one, but two Italian prima donnas .They feuded over everything. Maybe, as you sat there in the audience, talking during the performance, you'd speculate on the sexual habits of the singers. Hadn't you just read that hilarious poem in the press just after the fight last week, in which the writer -- in fully explicit detail -- imagined exactly how those two singers conducted what were assumed to be very active sex lives? (I'm not making this up. Such a poem really did appear in the London press, after two sopranos brawled on stage.)

You'd gossip about the singers even if nothing outrageous happened. They were exotic. They weren't even English. Almost all of them were Italians, which meant you'd think they were flamboyant, by nature, and probably immoral. (Though morality, in the 18th century, was a pretty loose concept. When Vivaldi taught at a school for girls in 18th century Venice, some of the girls would sneak out at night and work as prostitutes. Vivaldi himself -- an ordained priest! -- later toured through Europe, staging his operas, openly living with two much younger women whom he'd met at the school Everyone assumed he was sleeping with both of them.)

And, worse, yet, some of the biggest stars were castratos, men who'd been castrated before puberty so their voices wouldn't change. What's often forgotten now is that they were sexually potent, so they were not only singing stars, and not only exotic Italians, but walking sexual scandals, especially if you knew which noblewoman was enjoying a fling (an especially happy one, since there was no risk of pregnancy) with the castrato you were seeing on stage this very night. Especially if that noblewoman was in the theater! You'd turn to your friends, and point her out, maybe making loud, lewd comments. (During the music, of course.)

The orchestra was also full of personalities. Like Handel, they'd improvise. (The singers would, too.) If you went to the opera more than once, you'd get to know them. "There's the timpanist," you might say, "playing in this aria as if he wanted to drown out the rest of the instruments." (You can hear a moment like that on René Jacobs' recording of Handel's opera Rinaldo, on the Harmonia Mundi label. It happens in the final ritornello of the first bass aria in Act 1.)


So, back to Blil and me. Suppose classical music was played now the way it was played in the 18th century. We'd see an orchestra on TV, and it would be full of personalities. The musicians -- and the music, too -- would just about jump off the screen. Bill would have no trouble following the progress of a piece, because the musicians would be dramatizing it for him, with their faces and their bodies. The entire audience, I'd have to think -- both the concert audience, and the people watching on TV -- would be jerked awake. I'd love that, for my own sake. I'd be jerked awake.

And classical music -- returned to the way much of it was played when it was new -- would be a lot like sports. Bill and I could talk about the oboist. In a difficult, fast solo, she might have as much personality as Carlos Gomez had in the Mets/Yankees game, when he leaped up (with the coltish excitement of a 21 year-old) to catch a near-home run. How could anyone resist?

And why have we forgotten this? Why have we forgotten what classical music used to be like? Why don't we know that the concept of art, as we know it, barely even existed before the 19th century? Certainly in music, there was no such thing. You can read the long first chapter of Peter Gay's The Normal Heart (the fourth volume of his giant study of 19th century bourgeois culture) to learn how the idea of art -- and with it, silent listening -- came into music, and how much it was resisted.

But back to sports, for something that shows we really do forget the past. We often assume that things have always been more or less as they are now. A while ago I read a really smart and delightful book, Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy. It's about the 1908 baseball season, and -- almost on every page -- Murphy exposes things that I'd never heard about before, and which certainly aren't mentioned in any of the baseball reference books I have.

In 1908, just for instance, if one of the visiting players ran toward the stands to catch a fly ball or a foul ball, the home crowd would throw things at him. This wasn't casual. They'd throw bottles, in a serious attempt to distract the fielder, or even to injure him. This didn't draw any reprimand. Police weren't called. This was just how the game was played.

The players were outrageous. In one 1908 game, somebody stole second base. But he was disgusted at how easy it was. So on the next pitch, he ran back to first. Nobody stopped him. No umpire said that wasn't against the rules. He stood there safely on first base, and on the following pitch stole second again, just to show up the other team.

Things like that were reasonably routine. And here's something I recently read somewhere else about that general era. Suppose you're (let's say) the New York Giants, locked in a pennant race with Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, to your delight, loses a crucial game to Chicago, thanks to a star performance by a Chicago pitcher. In response, your team, the Giants, passes a hat, raises some money, and sends it to the Chicago pitcher, to thank him!

That's how things were in baseball, 100 years ago. And we've largely forgotten all of it. We've forgotten just as much about how classical music used to be.

Posted by gsandow at June 18, 2007 9:40 AM


One of the best ways to draw more attention to musicians' personalities would be to do away with (or add modifications to) one of classical music's most entrenched traditions: the dress code. No matter what is being performed -- whether liturgical music of the late 17th century or modern music of the 20th century -- musicians and their conductors always look like they're performing at a high socity ball in 19th century Vianna. Even period ensembles do this. One concert I have in mind was by a period ensemble performing Bach's St. Matthews Passion. Everything was done according to historical accuracy. Everything except the dress, that is, which was even more formal than usual, with the males soloists in white ties and tails and the female soloists in flowing ball gowns. Changing the dress code would be a very easy was to convey personality to an audience, but that can't happen until classical music overcomes the ghost of Beethoven and realize that it's in the 21st century. Audiences would be much more likely to give classical music a try -- and give classical music sustained attention -- if orchestras did away with the high culture pretense and dressed more honestly.

Posted by: John Stoehr at June 18, 2007 2:18 PM

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