On Thursday night, my soon-to-be 82 year old Iranian grandmother sent me the following text:
Hi amanda joshua bell and his friens are on pbs live in kincolon center iam having blast watching him
I called her yesterday to discuss birthday plans for the big 8-2 (chugging contests, Chippendales, etc.), and she was still so excited about seeing Joshua Bell on PBS that she refused to talk about anything else. “I didn’t watch it,” I said. “YOU DIDN’T WATCH IT??” “Um, no, I missed it. I’m sure it will be on some other time.” “Yes, tomorrow at noon. I’m going to watch it again.” “OK, OK – I’ll DVR it.” “It was so great, Amanda. He was there on TV with all these singers who are so much better than American Idol and I thought, Amanda knows him! I know him!.”
It’s true: a few years back, Noona met Joshua Bell backstage at a Carnegie performance. “This is my grandmother,” I said. “Grandmother?” he replied incredulously, which of course gained him one loyal fan for life.
Something happens when you see someone you know perform, and as it turns out, you don’t even have to really know them. The actor Paul Dano went to the same ballet school and and swim club as I did growing up. I can’t recall a word I said to the man, but whenever he pops up in a movie I think, “Ah! I know him!” Of course I don’t know him, but I know many things having to do with him, many things surrounding him, and that’s enough to elicit a personal, excited reaction from me. Just when the summer film Taking Woodstock started to get slow, there was Paul Dano in a VW van! My sister and I both perked up in the movie theater, “Paul Dano!” we jerked forward in our seats and looked at each other. “Who?” our friend snapped. “We know him!” we shout-whispered in unison. And as I said, we don’t.
In addition to loose and not so loose, quasi-personal ties (David Letterman lived down the road from us growing up, my college e mailed us all about our fellow alums who are going to the Olympics, I’ve seen Drew Barrymore twice in the same West Village Starbucks), the amount of access we all have to mainstream celebrities also creates in us a sensation of knowing people we don’t actually know. My entire family talked about Tiger Woods’ marital problems at Christmas dinner like he was That Cousin We Never See who Just Can’t Get it Together. We are exposed to a tremendous amount of information about celebrities in sports, movies, television, and even theater, and guess what? People seek out and spend money on those things.
On Wednesday, Jonathan wrote the following:
Then there is a whole other kind of special: the human interest
special. The feature-story-in- another-section-of-the-paper special.
The “get-to-know-the-artist-away-from-his-instrument” special. And
while I see the value in this, at least from a marketing perspective,
it makes me uneasy. This is a blog about PR, and so I know I’m
outlining a rather radical position here, but I feel it’s important, so
Sunday night, while stranded at the Toronto airport,
I found myself watching the Golden Globes, of all things. Meryl Streep,
in accepting her award, made a charming comment about being mistaken
for an extraordinary woman because she’s played such a long string of
them, and then, as a corollary, said that she thought of herself as a
vessel, through which these characters came to life. And it occurred to
me that while I’ve seen her in plenty of movies, I know very little
about her, and that that mystery probably makes it much easier for her
to disappear into a role – and for me, her audience, to buy it. I won’t
name names, but I imagine we probably all can think of certain fine
actors – likely of a younger generation – in whom it is very difficult
to suspend the disbelief necessary to appreciate their performances
(or, rather, appreciate them as something deeper than “performances”).
Their every move is broadcast to us by the media; they never become
characters because they are always their personae. (We don’t really
know them, of course, but we are encouraged to think that we do, and
that’s the point. And I assume this happens because everyone in the
equation – the actors themselves, their representatives, the people
marketing their movies, and the media – feels they are gaining
something by it.)
Now, the analogy to classical music is an
imperfect one, but not so imperfect that it isn’t worth making. We
performers are interpreters. Re-creators. Vessels, if you will. The
performer’s feeling for the music comes into it – how could it not? –
but in the greatest performances I’ve heard, the person or people
playing have seemed to disappear, and my feeling that I was connected
purely to the music I was hearing was absolute. And the more of a
persona the person onstage has cultivated, the harder it is for this
magical disappearance to take place. To put it bluntly, rather than a
vessel through which the music is communicated, he or she becomes an
obstacle between the audience and the music.
(Click here for his entire post.)
While Jonathan may not know a lot about Meryl Streep, he certainly could if he wanted to. In fact as I type, her smiling, annoyingly you-probably-wake-up-looking-like-that photo is staring up at me from the cover of Vanity Fair. When an actor can’t lose him or herself in a role, I don’t blame tabloids and gossip blogs, I blame being a lesser actor. And it’s true: most people are lesser actors than Meryl Streep. Similarly, if you buy a ticket to see Susan Graham perform because you read somewhere that she hangs out in cigar lounges, and then that’s all you can think about when watching and hearing her, she’s not giving a worthwhile performance. Having seen Susan Graham many times in many different settings, I assure you cigars will be the last thing on your mind when she’s on stage. But why not have that information out in the world? Why not give audiences the materials to feel like they know the person on stage if that’s what they need to begin to relate to the music?
I think classical music is great. James, Jonathan, Matthew and Michael have all told us here that they think classical music is great. Most people reading this blog probably think classical music is great. But it bears pointing out that most of the population immediately assumes this music is inaccessible to them. There aren’t lyrics to relate to, for example, and when there are, they’re probably in a different language. Most of what is performed by major orchestras and top soloists was written a hundred or hundreds of years ago; what could that possibly have to do with me? And of course it’s true that music written a hundred years ago without lyrics can affect someone, but if a shutting-down, a brushing-off, occurs before even setting foot into a concert hall, how will anyone new ever discover this?
My sister Aliza, frequently utilized and referenced on this blog as A Shining Beacon of Pop Culture Knowledge and All-Around Normality, has been reading our discussion this week. She e mailed to ask when Jonathan was next playing in New York. “February 10th at the 92 Street Y,” I told her. “Are you going?” “Yup.” “Can I come? I’m curious to see him play.” She has no musical reason for going to this concert, but in a delicious irony was intrigued by someone who wrote that he hopes his performance will have nothing to do with himself. Far from being an obstacle to understanding the music, the person, for Aliza, is the way into it. Can she have a great experience solely because she “knows” Jonathan and having nothing to do with his playing? Will “knowing” him, however little, actually help with the appreciating of the playing, or is its only usefulness getting her in the door and then his playing is on its own to win her over for the long-term? And among these things, what is he, as a performer, comfortable with, and does he even have the right to judge?
I had a decidedly unsuccessful career as a high school swim team member. Mostly I stood on the deck and cheered (publicist?), but occasionally they’d let me take part in a relay. And relays were the most exciting part of the meets: so much drama and energy and team spirit. Leads could be lost and regained, false starts abounded, the other three participants got to stand right there around the block and cheer – it was great. Throughout this week, I’ve been thinking that this whole process is a bit like a relay race. We hope the manager can get us a healthy lead, the presenter takes it from there, the publicist and journalist set up the big finish, and the musician, the anchor, brings it on home. Sure, everyone’s relay team is different, and depending on the situation some legs are stronger than others, but throughout, communication, passion and lots of hard work are key. Which is why I want to thank our four virtual panelists–James Egelhofer, Jonathan Biss, Matthew Guerrieri and Michael Kondziolka–for taking time out of their already over-saturated schedules to participate this week. Now get back to work!
Jonathan responds to this post in the comments.