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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/28/2004 -  
John Adams: Guide to Strange Places
Ludwig van Beethoven (edition Mahler): Symphony # 3

National Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Fifteen

Tomorrow We Live

“Music cannot be helped by an increase in the quantity of
listeners…only through an increase in the quality of listening,
the quality of the individual soul.”

Igor Stravinsky

This season I was very fortunate to be able to cover three distinct opening nights around the globe. First, I attended the premiere of the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia in Yerevan in September, followed by the opening of the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall on the first of October and, back home, heard a fabulous concert featuring Murray Perahia and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as Lincoln Center inaugurated their Great Performers series. The biggest contrast in this triple bill was attendance. While there were some empty seats in New York and several hundred no shows in London, in Armenia, where the dram has virtually collapsed and the country as a whole lives hand to mouth, there was not a seat to be had at the main theatre on Republic Square. It might be instructive to speculate a bit as to why this would be, as some revelations might just emerge on the state of serious music in our town now and in the future.

The story of Armenia over the last century is too horrible to relate in detail in an article about music, but after genocide, Communist subjugation, earthquakes and states of war with three of its four neighbors, this inspiring country is ready for a break. There is an unusual juxtaposition of optimism and nihilism in Armenia today and its future is still very much in doubt. What is for certain is that most of the intellectuals of the country, and a good deal of its male labor force, have left for greener pastures, most notably in the southern parts of California. And yet when classical music is mentioned, everyone is passionately interested. The symphony’s first concert was held in the theatre normally reserved for musical comedies because both the spectacular large opera house and the more quotidian Khachaturian Hall are presently under renovation with the hopes of a brighter future ahead. The orchestra was very much as I had expected: like most of the professional organizations of contemporary Armenia, it has seen better days, relying on the old and the very young to keep the tradition alive.

But the real story was the audience. Dressed in their best, albeit sometimes threadbare, finery, the crowd was attentive and appreciative to a program which included, much to my delight, an American vocal piece, Dover Beach of Samuel Barber. This was a gathering of true music lovers, people who had grown up studying music in the home, most with at least a rudimentary ability to navigate a keyboard and read a simple score. As such, they are very different from their American counterparts and the root of this dissimilarity is in the schools. For an organization like Carnegie Hall to prosper in future, except as a curiosity for tourists, some form of arts education that treats the classics as the important cornerstones of civilization that they truly are needs to be reinstated in the public school system here in the United States.

My experience of the last fifteen years or so has been this: if I bring a person under thirty to a classical concert, and I have done quite a bit of this, they universally enjoy it tremendously and want to learn more about the genre. The problem is no longer that the members of the younger generation may have a distaste for great music, rather they are not even aware of its existence. The process seems to have been launched in the early 1960’s as schools began to change their focus from the individual to the crowd, the lowest common denominator tacitly (or sometimes loudly) dictating the curriculum. Once the teachers educated in the ‘60’s reached maturity (or whatever it is that they have achieved), their dearth of knowledge about serious music translated into a callous ignoring of the art form as a cultural force. My own school system in Connecticut, which had boasted an exceptionally fine instrumental music program, abandoned wind ensemble and orchestra (not to mention music history) because the consultants that the town hired pointed out that not all students could create Beethoven’s Ninth and therefore it should not be studied, losing its place instead to rhythmic exercises of the kindergarten variety (luckily, somehow Shakespeare has thus far eluded this rabid egalitarianism). Now, in an age of academic counter-ethnocentrism, music by dead white males is universally discredited (one is reminded of the deterioration of scientific study in Germany once the Nazis impugned “Jewish physics”). Little wonder that there is a descending vortex for classical music attendance.

Once again this evening, Leonard Slatkin offers some hope. Affable and charming, he presented what could otherwise be rather arcane material (the orchestral changes in the Mahler edition of the ”Eroica”) with a breezy and skillful touch, offering cogent musical examples performed by the National Symphony that set the stage for the instant gratification of recognition once the work as a whole was performed. Nothing involves an audience more than that feeling of complicity; once we recognized the Mahlerian touches, we were all immediately “in on the secret”. Slatkin even had his band play an excerpt from the Symphony # 1 of Mahler, to establish the sonorous world of this unique visionary. He mused quite profoundly about period performance versus modern, pointing out that our 21st century ears will never hear in the same manner as that of Beethoven’s audience, and offered some thoughts about fealty to the printed score as well, raising the paradoxical issue of studiously reproducing Mahler’s revisions which, in themselves, plead a case for latitude rather than slavish replication. Slatkin has an inbred way of communicating this otherwise dry classroom stuff as if it were second nature to his listeners, regardless of the level of their musical erudition. He is, as American sportswriters might describe him, a natural. Even the performance tonight seemed more focused, although the opening John Adams piece was little more than an interminable perpetuum mobile with many loud and grievously predictable percussion effects.

While we all wait patiently for a Secretary of Education who knows the difference between Beethoven the composer and Beethoven the St. Bernard, I would love to offer some substantive answers to this thorny problem, but teaching is not my field. What I do propose, however, is that the direction that arts organizations have been taking over the past ten years or so is decidedly wrong. An emphasis on pandering and dumbing-down has done nothing to increase attendance, but has certainly turned off many formerly devoted music lovers. Sadly, an emphasis on contemporary music has also been a bust. Whoever came up with the absurd notion that young people would be attracted to this user-unfriendly and often specious material? My only advice is absurdly simple: never compromise the high performance standards set in the classical community well over 200 years ago and quality will out. Once you tinker with excellence only dross will follow.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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