Belatedly, concerning David Bowie…
I was very much moved by his final album, Blackstar. Made while he was dying, though no one knew he was. Now we know its subject was his death. It’s dark and powerful. So deeply connected to life, because so deeply entwined with death. There’s nothing quite like it, if only because making an album involves so many people, and is thus a public event. And artists making art about their death — to the extent that art like that ever happens — would normally not do it with so many (even if unknowing) collaborators.
The Seattle Symphony, at least, tweeted something strong. But I can make a case for any big-time classical group to pay great attention, and react publicly.
- Why? Because Bowie’s passing as a major cultural event. Maybe the biggest I’ve seen in recent years. The New York Times — this is one way to measure cultural heft — did more than 20 Bowie pieces after he died. David Bowie Dies at 69; Star Transcended Music, Art and Fashion. David Bowie Allowed His Art to Deliver a Final Message (about Bowie’s final album, which, until he died, no one knew was about the death he knew was coming). All the Young Bands: The Artists David Bowie Championed. How David Bowie Challenged MTV on Race. “Thank You, Mr. Bowie. You Changed Our Lives.” How David Bowie Changed Wall Street. David Bowie’s Fashion Legacy. David Bowie in the Movies.
The British Prime Minister tweeted. So did the German Foregin Ministry, remembering Bowie’s song about the Berlin Wall.
And so many just plain people — including many in classical music — had their own strong memories.
What could be done?
But what could, let’s say, a symphony orchestra do?
Well, it could make available quotes from its musicians. Can’t tell me that in the Cleveland Orchestra, for example, there aren’t musicians as deeply moved by Bowie as everybody else. By letting this be known, an orchestra shows something crucial, in our present age — shows that it lives in the same world as everyone else.
Of course an orchestra, to be timely, would have to tear up its programming this week, and quickly learn these pieces. Which could be troublesome, quite beyond the rush, because maybe the guest conductor coming in this week doesn’t want to lead those works.
Serious questions, all of those. And yet, if an orchestra really wanted to play these symphonies, it could. If not this week, just after the death, then next week, or anyway quickly enough so it would still feel like a memorial.
Bowie, we should remember, was treated as an artist when he died. And he was an arts figure. I used to see him in the ‘80s at openings at the BAM Next Wave. And he was otherwise active. A real figure in the arts.
But then it just doesn’t seem likee something orchestras (or classical music institutions in general) do, to react in some major way to events. Yes, there can be moments of silence for a national tragedy. Or the New York Philharmonic, in the wake of 9/11, could specially do the Brahms Requiem. Of course there are other examples.
But I remember a conversation I had in 1991, when Miles Davis died. I happened to be talking to the then-publicist for the New York Philharmonic, and I asked her if she’d thought of making Philharmonic trumpet players available to the media, to say how much they loved Miles. No way a trumpet player wouldn’t have listened to him.
Her answer? “Oh, they don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about Lenny Bernstein.”
Very old school. Don’t know that anyone would talk quite that way today. (Though whether they’d put their trumpet players out there would be another quesion. I hope they would.)
And when Gorecki’s Third Symphony became a sensation in the early ‘90s, I don’t remember that any major orchestra (at least in the US) programmed it. I could be wrong; I didn’t get around as much then as I do now, and of course we didn’t have the Internet to give us information.
But still. Here we had a deeply serious orchestral work that in Britain went to No. 6 on the pop album chart. It didn’t have equivalent success in the US, but it was listened to. Rock critics put it on their 10-best lists. One pop publicist I knew spent her own time publicizing the recording, though that wasn’t her job (and of course the album wasn’t on her label), simply because she felt people should hear it.
It would have made sense, then, for orchestras to program the piece. They would have sold tickets. But, going deeper, they would have touched a cultural vein, connected with people who didn’t normally listen to new classical music (or any classical music), but were listening to this.
I know our institutions plan things years in advance, and have some institutional equivalent of hardened arteries. But they should learn to be more flexible.