As I was thundering around my house this morning getting ready to go to work, I decided I wasn’t in the mood for my typical iPod Morning Mix (mostly Madonna, with a smattering of Kylie, Beyonce, and Musical Theatre… you know, for balance), so I switched things up in a big way and put on Sarah Brightman’s new album, Symphony.
For the record, I didn’t actually purchase this album, my mom did, so if you must throw stones, aim them at her, but I will freely admit that there is a soft, squishy place in my otherwise hardened heart for La Brightman, almost entirely because she basically OWNS the role of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, which is my favorite musical theatre production of all time, not to mention the best use of organ in a musical, EVER! Thus, I approach anything involving La Brightman with the utmost respect and sincerity, in deference to her past as a Supreme Stage Diva and her position as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s muse. In my way, I love her.
Honestly, though, she kind of makes me angry...
My beef with Sarah Brightman is completely unfair, and doesn’t even really have anything to do with her. For the most part, she’s a perfectly adequate vocalist – a little pinched in her upper ranges, and utterly incapable of producing high notes without squeezing the vowels into indecipherable syllables, but all in all, she’s pleasant to hear. I especially enjoy her when she’s singing pop, because that’s when she is at her best and I wish she would just settle there and stop these operatic affectations. We’ve come to the main sticking point that I have with her: I think she confuses people.
So many well meaning, but uninformed, people out there hear these recordings and decide they are classical music fans, which is great, but I fear for them because they’re kind of being misled. A common exchange that I experience on a regular basis is evidence of this. Upon meeting someone new, I almost always mention my past as a classically trained musician - even though classical music isn’t my career, it is still a huge part of my life and a very large portion of my character and identity - and more often than not, they’ll remark with enthusiasm, “That is soooo cool! I just adore classical music. Just the other day I heard Josh Groban performing on Good Morning America and I just love him and his amazing voice and the music is so emotional and powerful and it just brings tears to my eyes and one day I’m going to go see Andrea Bocelli in concert and I’m going to take my kids because I feel strongly that they should experience some culture and class as often as possible and isn’t it wonderful that there are singers out there releasing good, decent, wholesome classical music instead of that demon music that only talks about booties and booze and anyway I’m just so glad to finally know someone with whom I can converse about all the great classical music being released today and have you heard Charlotte Church’s new album because I’ve been listening to it NON-stop in my car these past few days and I have to say she is sooo talented and I can’t believe how beautiful some of those songs are…” and on and on and on.
I can’t express how sad these exchanges make me.
Thing is: classical music has itself to blame. I don’t know exactly when it happened, and it was probably very gradual, but classical music has become esoteric and exclusive and kind of stuck up, and it has become harder and harder to convince Joe Schmow that classical music is a valuable thing to understand and know about. Concerts are stuffy and formal, the performers can seem eccentric and unapproachable, and the attention span required for true appreciation of classical music is hard to find in most people today. I think it’s fair to say everyone can like classical music in small doses, but true devotion to the genre is getting scarce, especially in the younger generations. I’m sure there are lots of reasons for all of this and books have been written and money has been collected, but classical music has managed to become very misunderstood.
So it no surprise whatsoever that Sarah Brightman and her ilk can walk into a studio, put together a few tracks with lush string arrangements and poetic lyrics, slap the word “classical” on the jewel case, and get away with it.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Classical music is a very broad, very intangible thing to define, and I suppose that the music being released today under the classical moniker IS classical, in the strictest since of the word, but it just makes me sad that people are being so thrown off by this watered down, popified, almost insulting brand of classical music, that they lump Brightman and Co. in the same category as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Maybe I’m offended, on behalf of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, to see the grand tradition to which they so sublimely contributed come to such a dismal state of affairs.
And no WONDER they’re confused! I was listening along, and when I came to Track 7, Schwere Traume, my ears perked to the familiar strains of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (Adagietto) – arguably one of the most beautiful orchestral moments in the repertoire. Some may find the idea of floating lyrics over this piece to be of questionable taste (at best), but I don’t have a problem with it. All she really did was double the melody with her voice, so… no harm, no foul… I guess. But, get this… at first, I couldn’t remember the name of the movement, even though I knew it was from Mahler No. 5, so I went to the liner notes to confirm, and… you won’t even believe it… there were some dudes listed as the composers. Seriously, it said, Composers: some dudes who are most certainly NOT Mahler. It might be silly to get bent out of shape over stuff like this, I know, and the Mahler symphonies are old enough to be public domain, but where do these guys get OFF taking credit for a movement from a Mahlerian Symphony? I mean… that takes a whole lot of nerve. And to think, people out there will open up that CD booklet looking for the composer of this amazing music and not see Mahler’s name! It’s tragic. There’s no excuse, in my opinion. What possible harm would it do to their credibility to list Mahler as the original composer? And why don’t they list themselves as arrangers like they’re supposed to? And why did they do the whole thing again a few tracks later when pretty much the entire Jupiter movement from The Planets suite goes by and there’s no mention of Gustav Holst in the printed material!? Mark me, dudes who take credit for great classical works… it only makes you look like a moron. ALWAYS CITE YOUR SOURCE!
And just to confuse you, because I’m tricky like that: I really like Sarah Brightman’s new album. “What!?” you say? It’s actually very good… for what it is. Is it La Boheme at the Met? No way. Is it Bernstein and the New York Phil performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique)? Hell to the No. What it is, is a fairly good voice singing great melodies over lush arrangements. If Brightman released a CD of Schubert Lieder, I would probably hate it, because it would probably suck in all kinds of ways, so I have to give some credit to Brightman: girlfriend knows her limits. I’ve been rather hard on her through this post, and I’m starting to regret a little bit. It isn’t like she’s being dishonest or anything; she is officially labeled as a “crossover classical” or “operatic pop” artist, and I’m OK with those labels because they’re accurate. And as an aside, I love the crossover classical stuff because I love the mix of pop and classical, my two favorite kinds of music, and I’ll buy it and listen to it without shame. But it’s OK for me to feel that way because I know the difference, but I’m not confident that all of her fans do.
In efforts to conclude this bizarre and somewhat schizophrenic post, I’ll sum up by saying that I love Sarah Brightman for whom and what she is, but I don’t love the confusion she and her friends cause. I will still die on the inside when someone calls her music “classical”, and I will still cry on the outside when that same person hasn’t heard of Aida or Turandot. But I DO appreciate La Brightman, in all kinds of ways, and I hope she keeps singing decently-if-not-all-that-great for many years to come.