What we’re entrusted with

The following arrived as a comment on my ongoing online book. But as the anonymous writer said (I’m guessing he’s an orchestra musician), “This is more of a response to your ‘Main Street Sessions’ blog entry.” So I’m taking the liberty of posting it here, instead of on the book site.

When classical musicians play other styles of music they generally play that music in a very pure form whether it is bluegrass, jazz, or whatever. The common thread may be that there is a certain refinement technically but the product is true to its origins. I am sure there are some exceptions. However, the reverse is not true as you mentioned with Aretha Franklin. Ms. Franklin may have not been offered a leading role at the Met but she has performed with orchestras on their pops series singing a few arias along with her own stuff. Her fee is very high and she is very difficult to say the least. Another example of a pops fixture is Doc Severinsen. He plays and conducts many light to not so light pieces in his own style. It ranges from the comical to the embarrassing depending on the night. The big band stuff is usually great. However, on one occasion when he attempted a certain late romantic composer the performance literally drove a member of the orchestra to tears because the performance was so bad. Who is going to say no to him and others like him. They put bums in the seats. But is this really what we as classical musicians have been entrusted with?

There’s no doubt that orchestra musicians have to play — not to mince words — a lot of crap on their orchestras’ pop concerts. It can also be painful to play orchestra gigs with pop stars, because the orchestral arrangements of the pop stars’ music can be rudimentary. Who’s going to say no to this? How about the musicians? They need more power in their orchestras. Then they could say, no, sorry, we’re not playing this crap. Or, on the other hand, after examining the situation closely, they could say, “Well, we need to sell these tickets, to pay for our classical concerts. So we’re going to swallow our pride and play the crap.” At least it would be their decision.

As for classical musicians playing other musical styles with pure understanding, well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Sometimes they don’t get the style in any way at all. Sometimes they mimic its external sound, without getting the feel right. Sometimes they play the notes with no sense of groove. And sometimes they do everything brilliantly. Which figures — same thing can happen when they play various styles of classical music!

Of course pop stars can be difficult. So can classical stars. Pavarotti, anyone? Jessye Norman? Make your own list. But how about times when classical musicians play with pop stars, and have a wonderful experience? Some musicians from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s once told me once about playing a concert with Elton John. They thought he was a fabulous musician, and really enjoyed playing with him. And in any case, I was really talking about something else—classical musicians and pop musicians sharing the same program, but each doing their own thing. There’s no reason the pop musicians can’t be smart and edgy. The London Sinfonietta has done this, pairing members of Radiohead, for instance, with performances of composers like Xenakis. But the key sentence in this comment, for me, is the last one: “Is this really what we as classical musicians have been entrusted with?”

This is where my heart goes out to the person who wrote this. I understand the impatience, not to say pain. Being a classical musician is supposed to mean something. You’re supposed to uphold high artistic standards. And now you’re asked to share your programs with pop? If the pop is crap, or the orchestra’s role in it is crap, then of course there’s reason to despair. But why shouldn’t the pop be smart, artistic pop?

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