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The Unanswered Question

Two considerations changed my mind. These days, writing books seems increasingly quixotic. I am almost finished with my ninth, and I don’t have an Opus 10 in sight. The second factor was a Eureka moment during the recent NEA Music Critics Institute at Columbia University (I’m the Artistic Director). I was describing the weekly column my friend Antonio Munoz-Molina writes for the Madrid newspaper El Pais - a casual yet sophisticated first person mulling over of things cultural and political – and regretting that there’s nothing comparable in the American daily press. “It’s like a blog,” I explained – and realized that, if Antonio’s column is like a blog, I could be a blogger. The NEA Institute is now six years old and has charted many rapid changes in the wind.
Suddenly, the participants are bloggers, predisposed to personal, proactive commentary. We no longer see the critics of yesteryear, who filed reviews and safeguarded their “objectivity” by drawing a line between critics and practitioners. That line is disappearing: we no longer debate “conflict of interest” at the Institute. There is an increasing awareness of shared community and shared needs. I passionately believe that this is a timely development. Other lines are disappearing. In classical music, the “performance specialist” – the Arthur Rubinstein or Claudio Arrau who toured the musical capitals of the world, purveying sonatas and concertos by dead European masters – can already be retrospectively regarded as a twentieth century anomaly. Pianist are increasingly prone to conduct. Young pianists are increasingly prone to improvise and compose. We are returning to the old status quo. (Can you name a pianist of consequence before 1900 who was not a composer and/or conductor?) (I can think of one: Vladimir de Pachmann.)
In fact, the borders defining “classical music” itself are fast eroding. If any American framed this term, it was the Boston critic John Sullivan Dwight in the mid-nineteenth century. By “classical music” Dwight meant a supreme musical stratum, superior to “popular music” (he called Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” a “melodic itch”). This definition no longer serves. In our time classical music has been crucially refreshed by popular music, by non-Western music. Long ago I began calling the outcome “post-classical music” (my 1995 essay collection is titled The Post-Classical Predicament.) I myself crossed a line two decades ago when I decided I no longer wanted to be a  New York Times music critic.
I thought the classical music events I was reviewing were mainly redundant and superfluous. I felt cut off from the artists and arts administrators whose efforts I was judging.I wrote a notorious Jeremiad - Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music(1987) — attempting to comprehend how classical music had become a cul de sac. I wound up running the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, pursuing post-classical programming strategies. Since then I’ve pursued a double career, writing books and producing concerts. The DC chamber orchestra I co-founded in 2003 is called Post-Classical Ensemble. I also create thematic programming for a variety of orchestras and presenters. And, both as writer and producer, I remain obsessed with the story of Dvorak in America (1892-1895). Dvorak’s mandate, as director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music, was to help American composers find a distinctive voice. His enthusiastic response, espousing Native-American and (especially) African-American roots, was both influential and controversial.
The Dvorak saga investigates the still exigent questions “What is America?” and “Who is an American?” It illuminates the uses of culture to define personal and national identity. It also, as I have been led to discover, furnishes a singular tool for infusing the arts and humanities into middle and high school classrooms. It links to the Indian Wars and the slave trade, Hiawatha and Buffalo Bill, plantation song and blackface minstrelsy, immigration and Yellow Journalism. This summer, I will direct a “Dvorak and America” NEH teacher training institute hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony. We will train 25 teachers to integrate the Dvorak story into Social Studies and Music curricula. I look forward to reporting and contemplating this experience on my new blog. The music historian Jeff Magee, recently reviewing my Classical Music in America: A History, shrewdly observed a contradiction in my approach to history. Of the rise-and-fall narrative I extrapolate, he writes that “on one hand, it seems to transcend human agency; on the other, Horowitz suffuses almost every page with humane empathy for individual achievement. He even uses the word hero without irony.”
It’s true: the historian in me observes ineluctable forces, inescapable trajectories. The activist in me has to believe in the potency of individual agency. I lead two lives. Quoting Ives, Leonard Bernstein called his 1973 Norton Lectures “The Unanswered Question.” The question Bernstein posed was “Whither music in our time?” – and he had a lot of trouble answering it. And yet the answers came swiftly after that – from post-classical composer/performers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. If many questions remain unanswered – if many an American orchestra is today in a state approaching panic – the Mahlerian gravitas and gloom that freighted Bernstein’s pronouncements seems a dated twentieth century condition; post-classical music beckons.
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