First off, I’d like to thank Amanda (and ArtsJournal) for providing this forum for discussion of a question I think is really, really important, and for (inadvertently?) starting the discussion with this post.
Because I’d been interested in “the special problem” for a while (and because I was involved in one of the concerts that inspired the post), I emailed Amanda in response to what she’d written. I’m sort of unspecial, myself, but I have heard some version or another of the phrase “a great performance of a great piece is not enough anymore” many times, from many quarters. And so I was very curious to hear how Amanda reconciled her feelings about the dangers of manufactured expectations, as expressed in the post, with her work in marketing and public relations.
We had several exchanges on the topic, and what quickly became clear was that this is an issue confronted by people on all sides of the music world. I’m excited to see where the perspectives are similar and where they are different, and want to make a couple of points to get things started:
1) It’s going to be very hard for me to say this without lapsing into banality, but I’m going to try anyway: great music is pretty much the most special thing there is. Hearing a truly wonderful performance of a late Beethoven quartet, or a Mozart opera, or The Rite of Spring, or the Saint Matthew’s Passion, or Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments can be life-altering. And it may be a cliché, but there really is an infinite amount to be said about these pieces, without any self-conscious effort to be different or re-imagine them. I played Mozart’s K467 yesterday, for what may well have been the 50th time, and I swear it felt new: the ways in which the phrases responded to one another; layers of feeling I hadn’t yet accessed; events in the music that I’d never taken real notice of before.
A responsible performer – and the audience one hopes for – is continually alive to this. I absolutely think that there is a place for classical music placed in new, even radical contexts. But I worry that a fixation on what is new or different sends an implicit message that a performance of a Mozart piano concerto (or opera, or symphony, or string quintet), no matter how great, is not interesting on its own merits.
Take, for example, the recent Schubert/Beckett project at Lincoln Center. The evening took Schubert’s Winterreise, and reconceived it as one half of a dialogue with Beckett (in many ways a kindred spirit to Schubert). I didn’t see the piece, people whom I know and respect found it stimulating, and in any event Mark Padmore is, beyond all argument, a wonderful musician. But this remark (taken at least somewhat unfairly out of context) from the Times preview piece troubled me:
“But we’re coming to the end of an era. Without new motivations for listening and performing, the point comes when we’re just hearing different performances of the same thing.”
I’m all for taking Schubert’s music and looking for connections to the 20th (or 21st) century and the written word, and for blending the drama of the art song with the theatricality of the… well, the theater. But my motivations for listening and re-listening to Winterreise do not need to be new, because the music itself is constantly providing new motivations. (Possible point for discussion: maybe if we want to create new audiences and enrich their lives, we should talk to them about how to listen rather than feed them what’s trendy.)
2) Alex Ross, in his review of the same piece (not available online), wrote – and I paraphrase – that the heightened atmosphere of the Beckett staging drove home not that standard concert presentations are old-fashioned, but that they are “unmusical.” I think that’s a great observation, and it leads me to my second concern: that the focus on the “special” incorrectly places the problem. I’ve witnessed many arguments – some of the knock-out, drag-down variety – between traditionalists and provocateurs, and I often find that concern for the music is surprisingly low on either camp’s agenda. Traditionalism is big in classical music, of course, meaning that there’s a lot of knee-jerk “this is the way to do it because this is the way it’s always been done.” (“It” could be any number of things – from questions of musical style, to programming, to concert attire, and on and on.) But recently I’ve heard a lot of the marketing-driven opposite, which seems equally knee-jerk to me: “this has never been done before, and therefore it is relevant and interesting.” I think we – performers, critics, and all the people who make concerts happen – have a real responsibility to make concerts as vibrant, emotionally open, and musical as possible. It would be great if we could shift the conversation away from the Old is Good/New is Good debate, and towards the large and multi-faceted question of how to make that happen.