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 concerts in New York, 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 Rundfunk), playing Brahms. He didn’t remember the conductor, but I think it was Mariss 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 second one.
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 New York recital debut. 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. (To try to check that, I looked up her New York Times reviews. They were very strong.)
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 Naturale, 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 Antara
All of this was crazy music, in a way—well, maybe not the Berio, which hauntingly layered viola and percussion comments on recordings of a folk singer from Sicily. (It reminded me of some of Antonioni’s films, Il 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? 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. Which—sadly—sounds more like commerce than like art. 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 music?