Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Best. Article. Ever

Do you have a minute? Good…

I meant to post this article a while ago. In fact, the article in question is from last year. It has recently made it back into circulation because it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Chances are, you’ve seen it, but I just wanted to capture it here on the blog for my own sake… I want to have the link on hand whenever I want it.

It’s called Pearls for Breakfast, by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. Don’t click the link unless you’ve got some time, though. It’s the kind of thing you will want to read slowly. And relish.

The Article is Here

I’ve put together some commentary after the jump.

Wasn’t that fabulous?

I am the proud owner of the soundtrack to the Red Violin, and indeed, Joshua Bell’s playing is sublime. He’s a household name among classical music enthusiasts, and he’s really good looking, which raises his stock significantly in my shallow opinion.

Even though it seems atrocious of me to add to a Pulitzer Prize winning article, I do have a comment.

When I worked in the Box Office at the Brevard Music Center one long, horrible summer a few years back, I learned more than I cared to about the state of the classical music industry today. First of all, the only people consistently patronizing music nowadays, at least in Brevard, are senior citizens. We called them the White Haired Malice. Here’s a bunch of old people who can barely hear shilling out a fairly exorbitant wad of cash to sit through a concert. It always amused me to hear them discussing the concert afterwards – to no one in particular usually – when it was clear that they hadn’t heard a single note. I suppose part of the fun for them is watching.

Anyway, occasionally, some people who still had their hair and their hearing would show up to take in a concert, and most of the time they were only there because they were attracted by one of the big names that the Festival brought in every year. Brevard could count on having at least three very big names in Classical Music performing during any given summer, and that’s when we would see the most diverse crowds. One concert in particular, featuring an extremely famous concert pianist (and I won’t name names because this isn’t that type of blog), sticks in my memory.

The concert sold out as expected, and for once, young people seemed to outnumber the old. Since I and all my colleagues in the Box Office were all piano performance majors, we were given special permission to close the Box Office early so we could sit in on the concert. I was especially excited because the special guest was to perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in B-flat minor, which I was seriously considering picking up myself. Halfway through the concert, it was time for the Concerto, and I could barely contain myself, because hearing a world-famous, award-winning virtuoso perform one of your favorite pieces LIVE is a big deal, especially when you live down here in the South. So he played. And it was awful.

I mean… Awful.

I knew it. My piano playing peers knew it. Anyone with any classical training knew it. Granted, he didn’t suck, really, but for him it wasn’t very good at all. We didn’t talk about it, because who are we to criticize a virtuoso who is allowed to have a bad day just like everyone else, but none of us could hide our disappointment.

Well, we were the only ones who didn’t like it, apparently. The applause was thunderous when the piece ended, the adoration flowed like champagne. People in the audience, young and old alike, were swooning with ecstasy, like they’d just seen God. Of course, I didn’t expect anyone to BOO or anything, that would be rude, but I was surprised that the reception was as raucous as it turned out to be. When the concert ended, the people could barely shut up about the amazing playing of So-and-so, and we were forced to smile and nod through countless exclamations and exaltations. After an hour or so of this, we started to wonder if we’d just imagined the heinous performance, and the crowds of admirers were the ones who really got it.

Later on, we felt kind of bad. After all, it was obvious that many people left that concert inspired and moved… and even enthusiastic about classical music. And that’s never a bad thing. But the question still lingered… did So-and-So world famous award winning virtuoso deserve all the praise?

The only conclusion we could come up with is that classical music, just like everything else today, is governed by cults of personality. Since So-and-so was famous, and his name was widely known, the people in the audience were willing to assume that everything he did was genius. Basically, if one has been around long enough and been given more positive reviews than negative, one can show up to a sold out concert, figuratively vomit all over the keyboard, collect your money and go. No muss no fuss. It’s kind of a scam, if you think about it.

Who’s to blame? The musicians? The audiences? Does anyone even care?

Basically, the classical music world, at least the one outside of New York, is a black hole. The typical audience is non-discriminating, completely satisfied to take what they get. In my experience, the vast majority of ticket buyers are wealthy, white folks who attend concerts because that’s what they’re supposed to do as wealthy, white folks, when they’d probably rather be golfing or playing canasta. But at least they ARE coming to concerts. The general public has been lost for quite some time.

I wonder if that explains what happened to Joshua Bell on the subway. Was it really that people were just in too much of a hurry? Was it really that they couldn’t be bothered with an annoying street musician making a racket? No, I think we’re dealing with ignorance. The writer seems to conclude that the real issue is apathy… we live in a world in which everyone is too busy and self-involved to stop and listen to fine music. But could the reality be that few people even know what fine music is?

It’s well and good to get all sad about how our culture doesn’t stop and smell the roses. But what if our culture has forgotten what a rose is?


Chip said...

I find this article slightly disturbing - particularly about how the world outside New York is a black hole.

I am a composer in Edinburgh, preparing for a premiere of my first symphony and I hope the audience is concerned about quality music. Partly because I want an audience (as a emerging composer there is no guarantee anyone will come to the concert), but partly because I would like the music to be critiqued on an honest level - is it good enough to warrant more?

Certainly I hope to have some critics in the audience who will write favourably (but honestly) about the music. But it would also be nice to know the audience appreciates it at some level.

- That said, Edinburgh is home to the Edinburgh International Festival and so we host a number of world class organisations over 3 weeks in the summer. So, I suspect we may be more "in tune" to what quality is than most towns outside New York.


Erin G said...

yeah I kind of agree... all over Europe, there are oppotunities to hear really NICE music in chamber and concert settings, and all kinds of people seem to appreciate it. But the American south, a few cities and sites not withstanding, is certainly lacking compared to other places! I wonder, though, is NYC any different than other cities, with the types of patrons classical music attracts?

that article is GREAT though!

Reeva*Dubois said...

I think in NYC, and maybe L.A., Chicago, San Fran, D.C. (major US cities) there are enough educated, cultured, and classically savvy people to truly appreciate a good concert.

Elsewhere, though... it's just what old people do. I know I sound cynical and negative about it, but in my experience, that's kind of the way it is, generally speaking.

But that doesn't mean performers and composers should get discouraged. Those old people are paying, so... give 'em what they want, I guess.