Wonders and marvels

Today, linked in ArtsJournal, are two delightful surprises — daily newspaper pieces that talk in great serious detail about classical music, and in fact talk about music the way professionals do.

One, about how Daniel Barenboim conducts Schumann, is by my wife, Anne Midgette, writing in The New York Times; the other is by Michael Barnes, writing in the Austin (TX) American Statesman, is an explanation of theme and variation form, showing how it works in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. (There’s no point, as I’ve said before, in inserting a link to Times articles; the Times has somehow set up its site so the links never function.)

Now, pieces like these, in daily papers, aren’t supposed to exist. Daily papers don’t want to cover classical music very much (even the Times is cutting back). Daily papers like pop culture. They want bright, eager writing, aimed at younger readers. So if they do print anything about classical music, they tend to want it glossy.

And here, instead, are two very serious pieces. The Austin article explains musical structure, in considerable detail — and with musical examples, actually printed in real music notation. The Times piece discusses details of composition and performance: Why Schumann’s symphonic works are oddly awkward, why they have to be played differently from Brahms, and how German musicians have their own performance style. I’ve seen subjects like these touched on in other newspaper pieces, but here they’re treated in depth.

Both pieces are wonderfully readable, or at least I think so. And so I wonder: How will civilian readers (people who aren’t classical music professionals, or avid, educated fans) react? I’d like to think that some of them, at least, will be fascinated. I think classical music has reorient itself in two ways — it has to be more accessible, but also more artistic. I’d argue that the current ways in which it’s presented (in advertising, marketing brochures, on the radio, on public TV, in program books, even in the concert hall) isn’t truly artistic. Either classical music comes off as brisk and glossy, full of empty excitement and meaningless invocations of assumed profundity, or else — for instance in far too many program notes — it seems too scholarly, weighed down by history and musical analysis.

Rarely do you see classical music discussed as something you listen to seriously — with reference, I mean, to exactly the things that, as you hear them (not think about them, not analyze them, not meditate about their historical significance), make classical music such a powerful and interesting artistic experience. These two articles do just that. So again, I’m very curious to know what people reading them will think. In my own experience, many people in the new audience we hope to attract think of classical music as, despite its artistic claims, somehow middlebrow — too bland, too predictable, too sentimental, too unchallenging. In part, that’s because we do too much music from the past, which really can get bland and predictable through too much repetition.

But it’s also, I think, because we haven’t yet found a way to tell people what we ourselves enjoy. These surprising and welcome newspaper pieces do exactly that — and with any luck will show readers some of the reasons classical music can be gripping and meaningful.

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