Arresting cellist

“Arresting Cellist Wins Award, Will Make Debut.” Why not say something like that?

That was my advice, in my last post, to people writing classical music press releases. Why not start with a headline that tells us why we ought to care about whatever event the release promotes?

Drew McManus agreed. My suggestion, he e-mailed me, is simply “common sense.”

But there’s one little wrinkle. If you’re going to write a headline that grabs attention and is also honest, the artist it’s about has to have distinctive qualities, either personal or musical, and preferably both. But it’s not common in our oddly crippled business to ask what those distinctive qualities might be.

Young Concert Artists (I don’t mean to single them out, but it was their press release that, almost at random, I happened to write about) holds auditions every year. Somebody wins. That somebody, no doubt, is pretty good. The judges probably discuss the winner’s playing, and could tell anyone who asked them exactly what it’s like.

But nobody asks them, or, if they do — and if the discussion is continued elsewhere in the organization — nobody seems to think that these are things with any public relevance. Just as, I might add, when an orchestra picks a new music director, nobody talks about what, exactly, that conductor does with the music he or she conducts. That discussion might not even happen among members of the orchestra’s staff and board, and certainly wouldn’t be shared with the public. “She’d be the first to say she’s not the best conductor of romantic music, but give her a muscular 20th century score…”

Not even a sanitized version of that would ever be aired: “Though of course she loves music of all periods, she has a special affection for 20th century works.” Instead, the orchestra issues a boilerplate press release, about how exciting and acclaimed their new conductor is, complete with an eye-glazing list of all the orchestras that she’s conducted. Which is exactly what Young Concert Artists did with its cellist (who, by the way, I hear is really very good), though of course substituting concerts for conducting gigs. Though — and this is a rather crucial point — they couldn’t list very many concerts, because their winner is very young. Which makes it all the more important to tell us something else about her.

Let’s not pretend this does no harm other than to make publicity ineffective. As I said in my last post, it helps create an impression that there’s nothing going on in classical music. Worse still, I think it sets up a feedback loop with how musicians actually play. If there’s not much talk about musicians’ individual qualities, then musicians won’t develop individual qualities. Or at least that their individuality — as part of a larger understanding that every musician ought to make an individual statement (something taken for granted in pop music, by the way) — won’t often be an issue when they’re being trained. (Which is exactly what happens in conservatories.)

That, in turn, makes publicists less likely to write about a musician’s individuality. And so the blankness of classical music reinforces itself, each version of it strengthening the others. And we wonder why the world doesn’t care about us!

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