Last Wednesday I taught the last class, for this year, in my
spring semester Juilliard course, “Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” I had a
marketing specialist as a guest, and he asked the students some useful
questions. How did they decide which concerts to go to? Because they’re
professionals, they actually look at listings, ads, and websites, to find out
when there’s music that might interest them. They might be looking for a piece
they like, or a piece they’ve never heard live, or
something with an important part for their own instrument.
I then asked a followup. Which classical
during the past year, generated a lot of word-of-mouth buzz at Juilliard? Almost
as soon as I got the words out, three or four students all answered at once: “The
Berlin Philharmonic.” Then, after a pause, another student named the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra (the Bayerischer
class=SpellE>Rundfunk), playing Brahms. He didn’t remember the
conductor, but I think it was Mariss
class=SpellE>Jansons. The student said that when word got out about the
first concert in the series, 40 or 50 Juilliard people got tickets for the
And that was it—two events (counting a series of concerts by
a single orchestra as one event), out of the hundreds available. And note that
these were musicians who play orchestral instruments, picking orchestra
concerts. Student singers would probably have picked a vocal concert or an
opera; student composers would probably have picked a new music performance. Pianists
would have picked a piano concert. I began to wonder if there’s anything that
everyone agrees on. Or, more to the point, that everybody even hears about.
I thought back to things I’ve heard or read about that
happened in the past. The list of musical celebrities who went to the premiere
of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 was
staggering. Rachmaninoff was there, for instance. During that same decade, a
singer I once knew (I studied singing with her in the 1960s) made her w:st="on">
She was very well received. When she came back the next season, she looked out
at the audience and saw, she said, Toscanini and Rachmaninoff.
class=GramE>(To try to check that, I looked up her w:st="on">New York style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> Times reviews.
class=GramE>(To try to check that, I looked up her w:st="on">New York
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> Times reviews.They were very
So what was different then? Were there fewer concerts? Or
were there certain things that serious musicians paid attention to? In the ‘40s
and the ‘50s, Virgil Thomson used to talk about an “intellectual audience,”
which, he said, went to certain musical events. (Schnabel, for
example, but never Horowitz.) Is there anything like that now? Any
audience that goes to chamber music, operas, orchestras, recitals, new music concerts,
everything that’s out there, if the individual event is interesting enough? I’m
not sure there is. And even within each area, I wonder if there’s any unified
audience. Well, pianists always go to Martha Argerich.
But I’ve gone, over many years, to innumerable new music performances, and no
matter what they are, I don’t see any large number of composers at them.
Maybe I’m asking the impossible. Maybe things were always
like this. But I wonder.
One event I went to very happily was David Robertson’s
concert of Berio, Ligeti,
and George Benjamin, at Zankel Hall this past
Thursday. David was given one of Carnegie Hall’s “Perspective” series, which (within
limits) means that he can do anything he likes. So he brought a violist and
percussionist from the Ensemble Intercontemporain at
IRCAM, of which he used to be music director, to play Berio’s
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>, and had them join a group of young and
fabulous American musicians in Carnegie’s Zankel Band
to play the Ligeti Piano Concerto, and Benjamin’s
All of this was crazy music, in a way—well, maybe not the
class=SpellE>Berio, which hauntingly layered viola and percussion
comments on recordings of a folk singer from w:st="on">Sicily class=SpellE>Antonioni’s
Grido and Red
Desert, for instance, where scars
of heavy industry weigh on human hearts.) But the Ligeti
and Benjamin pieces were crazy, full of crazy rhythms, crazy sounds (screeches,
tootles, growls), and crazy references (to pygmy music, Peruvian music, the
sound of hammers hitting steel).
I loved this concert. If David and the band had wanted to
play it again, I would have listened again. And what matters most is that this
is music David likes. Carnegie Hall in effect asked him, “David, what would you
like to do?” And he answered: “This!”
So how often does that happen in the classical music world?
class=GramE>Sadly, almost never.
class=GramE>Sadly, almost never.Most concerts feature music from the
standard repertory. I’m not going to say musicians don’t want to play those
pieces; they do. But we’re all conditioned to expect to hear (and play) the
same music over and over and over and over and over and over. Why?
And what does this say about classical music as an art? Again
we’ve been conditioned to think that classical music is artistic. But most artists
don’t repeat the same things every year, or even every few years. They’re
always moving onward, always growing. That’s hard in classical music, because
you always have to think of the repertory that you audience demands to hear.
class=GramE>Which—sadly—sounds more like commerce than like art. style='mso-spacerun:yes'>
class=GramE>Which—sadly—sounds more like commerce than like art.
style='mso-spacerun:yes'>David’s concert was an art event. He did the
music that he loves, and it’s not the music that someone else might love. He
had the chance to be himself.
How often—honestly, now—does that happen, in classical