There’s no better way to understand why classical music doesn’t speak to many people these days than by comparing pop and classical music reviews. I’ve chosen some from the New York Times, both because I read that paper every day and because the reviews on both sides of the fence are more than reputable. So the comparison, broadly speaking, is fair.
So here’s a bit of Ben Ratliff’s review last Thursday of Gilberto Gil:
His set was a deep fusion of pop and folk culture…
The name of his band, Banda Larga Cordel, means broadband, and Mr. Gil’s communications-technology thoughts lie somewhere between cybertheory and metaphorical poetry about practical things….He’s not necessarily interested in the status or time-saving aspects of, say, cellphones; he’s an artist, the opposite of a salesman. But he is also the minister of culture for Brazil. In interviews, and in songs like the new “Banda Larga Cordel” and the old “Pela Internet” (“On the Internet”) — a tune from 1996 that he played on Tuesday — he casts broadband technology as an empowerment issue, a cheap way to have an entire country, and ideally an entire world, included in political and social discussions.
Brazilians have long been obsessed with the past and the future at the same time, a double consciousness that has helped produce a lot of good music over the last half-century. Mr. Gil in particular made peace with popular culture before many of his contemporaries did; the tropicália movement, which he helped build in the late 1960s, was playfully anti-nostalgia and ferociously anti-purist. He is the same as ever, a man of big ideas.
An interesting artist, you’d have to say. (And Minister of Culture! Note to everyone at NPAC who wanted a Cabinet-level arts department in the U.S. government — beware of getting what you wish for. Suppose Obama wins, sets up a Department of Cultural Affairs, and names John Mellencamp to head it. And suppose Mellencamp, an outspoken populist, says that he thinks symphony orchestras get too much money.)
Now read Anthony Tommasini, the same day, on a New York Philharmonic concert in Central Park:
Standing at the podium looking south from the Great Lawn to the skyscrapers of Midtown, the conductor Bramwell Tovey declared the sight “one of the great views in the world.” Best known to New Yorkers from his guest stints conducting the Philharmonic’s Summertime Classics concerts, Mr. Tovey brings droll British wit to his impromptu commentaries. He was in good form on Tuesday night.
After opening the program with an exuberant account of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Mr. Tovey tried to explain to concertgoers how they could vote to choose an encore for the orchestra. “No superdelegates here,” he added….
After intermission there was a refreshingly straightforward performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812″ Overture. The composer may have been embarrassed by this made-to-order occasional piece, but Mr. Tovey and the orchestra treated it as a respectable score with a knockout finale, here punctuated with booming cannon shots courtesy of an electric keyboard. The concert ended with three marches by Sousa that had the crowd clapping and children marching up and down the grassy aisles.
If I were a smart Martian, new to the earth, I’d read all this, and decide that pop music is serious, and classical music is light entertainment, a blend of Las Vegas and the fourth of July. Somebody, of course, might object that the Philharmonic concert was designed as entertainment, a happy, unchallenging night in Central Park. To which I’d reply that there’s also a pop series in Central Park, and Gilberto Gil could well be on it.
Here’s Steve Smith, also on Thursday in the Times, about the Brooklyn Phlharmonic in yet another Central Park orchestral event:
The 29-member ensemble was amplified but still had to contend with an idling truck, cellphones that were answered rather than silenced, and other sporadic nuisances. The performance too had its rough edges. Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto sounded scrappy, with balances often less than ideal; the robust finale came off best. In Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 the soloist, Tim Fain, played with an easy brilliance and sweet tone. Competing with a nonplused sparrow and a cavorting bystander only seemed to intensify his megawatt smile. Once again, the last movement was strongest.
I took in those works from a seat near the front, then moved to the plaza behind the seats for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. There the sound was clearer and better blended, and [the conductor's] careful attention to dynamics and rhythm was more readily discerned.
Classical music here seems like a technical exercise. The pieces are known. So how were they played? Badly or well? The Martian visitor — or any smart person, reading the Gilberto Gil review and this one — could be forgiven for simply declining to care. Only at the end of Steve’s review, and in parentheses, comes something that might spark some interest:
(During the Adagio sounds from the New York Philharmonic concert wafted on wayward breezes, briefly creating an Ivesian jangle.)
And this, of course, has — strictly speaking — nothing to do with the meaning or purpose of the concert, or at least not with any meaning the Brooklyn Philharmonic might have intended.
Please note: I’m friendly with both Tony and Steve, and I’m absolutely not saying that either is a bad critic, or that Ben Ratliff (whom I also know) is better than they are. I’m saying that pop music gives Ben more ideas — more substance — to work with.