How to kill classical music (3)

Here’s a press release from a major classical music publicity firm:

S U S A N  G R A H A M  S I N G S 

A T  Z A N K E L  H A L L

Well, stop the presses! Susan Graham, a singer, is going to sing! Who knew? And here I thought that she was going to tap dance.

Again we have a headline that doesn’t tell us anything. Or, anyway, doesn’t tell us enough, because, just maybe, the fact that Graham will sing at Zankel might be news. Zankel is Carnegie Hall’s spiffy and artistic new performing space. The season there has been impressive; for Graham to join it might just be a mark of excellence. And there’s also a subhead:

S U S A N  G R A H A M  S I N G S 

A T  Z A N K E L  H A L L

With Pianist Emanuel Ax

on April 12

So it’s Graham and Ax, a reasonably stellar combination. Maybe that’s news. And for busy critics, it’s not dumb to put the date in a subhead; one of the first questions members of the press will ask themselves is always going to be, “So when is this concert?”

But I still think the headline’s lame. Just compare it to

S U S A N  G R A H A M  W I N S 

N O B E L  P R I Z E  I N  P H Y S I C S

Quantum Theory Revolutionized

Or simply

S U S A N  G R A H A M  G I V E S  

O F F B E A T  C O N C E R T

though that’s a little weak. Who says the concert’s so unusual, and what makes it that way? But at least this headline tries to say something.

The press release, after the headline, reads like this:

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will sing in a Debussy-infused chamber music concert with pianist Emanuel Ax on Monday, April 12 at 7:30 p.m. in Zankel Hall at Carnegie, as part of Mr. Ax’s season-long Perspectives concert series, featuring the works of Debussy, as well as those of composers who influenced him and works of composers influenced by him.

“Debussy-infused”? Sounds like somebody’s been reading too many fancy menus (“Sauteed Gnats’ Ears with Infusion of Debussy Husks in Alchohol”). But some will disagree with me, and think that this is lively writing. At least it’s an attempt. What’s more unfortunate is what comes afterwards. First, this is a chamber music concert. “Susan Graham Sings Chamber Music Concert” would have been a decent headline, since star concert singers don’t usually do such things.

Second, this isn’t a Susan Graham event; it’s an Emanuel Ax event, part of a series — and all the “Perspectives” events are important in New York’s musical life — that Ax is doing this year at Carnegie. So the headline should reflect this:

S U S A N  G R A H A M  S I N G S 

C H A M B E R  M U S I C  C O N C E R T

With Emanuel Ax, on “Perspectives” Series

Now, perhaps, we’re getting somewhere. Note that the press release tries (or so I’d guess) to make the same point, more or less, by putting “Perspectives” in boldface. Though that’s weak, because nothing explains exactly what “Perspectives” is. Maybe the publicists figured that “Perspectives” is a buzzword on the New York concert scene, and needed only to be highlighted, for the seven or eight critics in town who really care about it. Not, of course, that this will get anywhere with those critics’ editors, of course, or with the non-music press.

And then how about the scholarly stuff about Debussy, underscored with that perky (not to say hyperactive) “influenced by him”? Well, I say nobody cares. Or, anyway, not many people in the audience care. Concerts are often planned with scholarly premises, but I don’t think people often buy tickets with those premises in mind. Maybe, once again, that scholarly talk of influences might appeal to a handful of critics, who might then put the story in The New York Times. But then shouldn’t the press release go on to talk about how that influence will actually be audible? Here’s the program:

Debussy, Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp [italicized in the press release, though I believe the italics are incorrect; titles unique to a given piece belong in italics, but not purely descriptive names like this one, which other works might share]

Duparc, Songs by Duparc

Ravel,Chansons madécasses for Voice, Flute, Cello, and Piano

Saariaho, Je sens undeuxième coeur for Piano, Viola, and Cello (World Premiere)

Debussy, Ariettes oublieés

Very nice program. But, how, exactly, can we hear Duparc’s influence in Debussy, and Debussy’s in Ravel and Saariaho? (Especially in Saariaho, since not everyone will know her work.) The press release should briefly tell us, but it doesn’t. Here’s the next paragraph:

In addition to Debussy the April 12th program includes works by Duparc, Ravel, and Saariaho [best to give her first name, too, since, again, not everybody knows about her], whose Je sens un deuxième coeur for Piano, Viola and Cello, commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation, will receive its world premiere. Ms. Graham and Mr. Ax will be joined by the Artists of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; [sic; that should be a colon, not a semi-colon] Ransom Wilson, Flute; Paul Neubauer, Viola; Fred Sherry, Cello; and Nancy Allen, Harp.

And that’s it. That’s all we learn about the concert. The rest of the press release, two long paragraphs, wanders off in bios of Graham and Ax, each at least twice as long as it needs to be. There’s nothing about how this probably wonderful concert is going to feel, or what the music’s like (especially the premiere; what kind of composer is Saariaho, for those who might not know her?). Or about the marvelous way the instruments weave together on the program, appearing in various combinations, but never all together. Or about how the performers — terrific musicians — feel about the music, and about working with each other.

Plus, if we’re going to be lectured at, in italics no less, about who influenced whom, why don’t we hear from the composer who’s alive to tell us what she thinks? What does Saariaho feel she learned from Debussy? How has he inspired her? Every question I’ve suggested here is a lost opportunity, a chance to make the press release worth reading — and (I can’t stress this enough) to make it interesting for people who don’t usually think about classical music.

And yes, I know — these press releases aren’t aimed at people like that. But why aren’t they? And how will we ever learn to talk to a new audience, if we can’t even talk to each other? Note how weakly — or, rather, with what forced and unconvincing strength — the words “world premiere” were put in boldface type. Again, “world premiere” might be a buzzword for a small elite of critics, and sometimes it might well work. Critics, impatient with conventional programming, really might be interested in this concert simply because there’s going to be a world premiere.

But what kind of world do we live in when the fact of a world premiere is important, but its nature doesn’t rate even a single word? That’s not a world with even a remote connection with art.

One last complaint. The Graham bio is undone by fulsome overpraise:

One of the most sought-after singers of our time, Susan Graham is celebrated worldwide for the lustrous timbre of her voice, the enchanting allure of her stage presence, and the fervent emotion that infuses [not again!] her varied repertoire.

She sounds like a queen being flattered by a courtier. Can’t we just say, “One of the most sought-after singers of our time [which is certainly true], Susan Graham is celebrated worldwide for her shining voice, her strong presence on stage, and her powerful emotion”?

And, please — not more than one infusion in each press release.

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