Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Putin vs. Met

   This whole horrifying, history-repeating-itself Putin debacle continues to roil and rankle, and well it should. Today's lead article in the NY Times Art's section pushes the debate along with its coverage of reaction to composer Andrew Rudin's recent brave and appropriate online petition calling on the sacrosanct Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its upcoming Russian-themed opening night gala to the support of LGBT rights. At issue are the evening's megastars: diva soprano Anna Netrebko, and conductor Valery Gergiev, artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. Both were outspoken supporters during the rabidly anti-gay Mr. Putin's rise to power, with Gergiev even being crowned "Hero of Labor" by Putin this spring. To top it off, the evening features (gay, gay, gay, gay) Tchaikovky's opera "Eugene Onegin." The ironies stupefy, even by Manhattan standards.

   "I'm not asking them to be against anybody. I'm asking them to be for somebody" said Mr. Rudin, which to me is a brilliant, succinct call to artistic arms. This last month I've already been aghast at the varied and creative apologia rhetoric, ranging from the ignorantly offensive to the downright self-serving, of star athletes and Olympic officials the world over as they selfishly guard their chance to grab glory, dollars and endorsement contracts in Sochi-at the trifling expense of basic human rights. But now that this thing has landed right in my lap as an artist, I find the time to speak out is now. At very least, SIGN THIS PETITION! I did it this morning, and now I'm writing this.

   Like elite athletes, performing artists are certainly not immune to opportunistic, head-in-the-sand thinking. After showing no qualms at all about stumping for Putin, Netrebko and Gergiev have gone mum. Ms. Netrebko on Facebook: "As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues-regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone." Oh, and by the way some of her best friends are gay!...including about 99.9999% of her fans, patrons and CD buyers. It's just a little too much trouble to speak up for them, though her superstar status in the classical music world guarantees her enormous power on the world stage. Not to mention that the very core of true artistic expression, and the subject of nearly every song and opera she has ever warbled, speaks to our shared human experience of man's cruelty to man, injustice, greed, loss and betrayal. But at least she has made a statement, as pale as it is. Mr. Gergiev, who is slated to be a grand marshal at Sochi, has yet to make comment. But perhaps the most enraging is the marshmallow corporate-speak response from the office of Met manager Peter Gelb, saying "we stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions." They should say "hide behind." Others have stepped forward: Bartlett Sher, recent star director at the Met, and violinist Gidon Kremer have made admittedly cautious but honest statements to the press condemning Putin, seemingly urging the Met to take an action, any action. 

    There is a prevailing belief that it is inappropriate for artists to speak out in the world of politics. We would rather our great singers, conductors and instrumentalists don their costumes and trot onstage to re-enact the great operas of Bellini, Barber, Corigliano, Donizetti, Handel, Menotti, Ravel, Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky and a thousand other LGBT artists before and since, while we safely watch from the insulation of our $475 box seats as a world leader brazenly, methodically strips away the rights of already vulnerable citizens. The Met claims its "mission is artistic" and is therefore excused from taking a stand. But what is our role as artists, if not to raise our voices, hands, pens and brushes against tyrants such as Putin who, given the chance, would extinguish all those who differ from his Russian ideal? It seems that world governments and their athletes have already found their convenient justifications for not boycotting the winter games in Sochi. Maybe it is not too late to encourage a mere 3,800 opening night gala attendees to forgo their tuxedos and fur coats and throw their offensively overpriced tickets into the Lincoln Center fountain on September 23rd? Or perhaps, the Met might wake up and begin the process of setting asides decades of veiled homophobia at last. If they are afraid of losing artists such as Netrebko and Gergiev along the way, I venture to say there will be a hundred others of equal talent and stronger principle lined up to take their place. Warning! A few of them might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Excuses, excuses

    Longish time no post, and I can offer no better explanation than the vicissitudes of the winter past: a death (my dear father), a marriage (my own, thank you State of Maine) and arpeggios (which will get in the way of everything if you let them). But with the advent of spring I am back at it...hoping that my countless dozens of readers haven't jumped blog for some other more entertaining and reliable pianist?
    The San Francisco Symphony strike awakened my dulled senses. The orchestra's current season and upcoming tour have been shut down over wage disputes, the current average salary being $165,000. My burning question: does that include the bass clarinet player? According to SFS executive director Brent Assink (a Dickens-worthy surname that!) management was “ready to resume bargaining” with the players, though “collectively, we need a few hours of sleep.”
    Now, I will say right off the baton that I don't know a thing about how these organizations tick. A job as principal pianist for a large regional orchestra in years past only provided an outsider's view at best; orchestra pianists often play fewer than half the contracted annual services, since the vast majority of symphonic repertoire doesn't include the piano at all. When it does, you will often have 400 measures of rest, a highly visible eight bars or so of colorful solo material, and then a return to a state of longeur for the rest of the concert. One spends a lot of time avoiding the bitter stares of string players who must endure every minute of rehearsal, knowing that you will probably be home on your couch watching Law and Order SVU reruns while they are still thrashing out the last passages of the Tchaikovsky 4th. Nevertheless, I am pretty darn sure that even the most senior contract players in our hard-working ensemble didn't make anything near $165,000 a year, not to mention the health benefits and various extras such as recording fees that must come with a seat in a prestigious orchestra like San Francisco. My colleagues would have been lucky to cobble together even half that much money, even while supplementing their income by working with other nearby orchestras, teaching privately and in academic institutions, and with the occasional soul-wearying wedding gig and such. Assuming that SFS players have the opportunity to take on these kinds of additional employment as well, they would be looking at nearly $200,000 a year. Even in our completely skewed culture, that seems pretty close to a fair recompense. I mean, you are also being given the privilege of playing and recording exciting music with some of the world's greatest musicians and conductors, often traveling the world in the process. 
    As a fellow musician, I totally sympathize with the orchestra players and their quest for fairness. But from the point of view of a solo artist who lacks the ongoing continuity, comradeship and financial security that an orchestra can provide, I envy these musicians their current great fortune. Were their orchestra to fold, as sadly so many others have of late, the loss would be felt not only by these individual players and their audience- not all of whom are fat cat industrialists, surely- but also by classical musicians everywhere who are also fighting hard to survive by their art in a culture that seems to value it less and less every day. A fine dilemma.

View from my bench 7:07 am

Vernal equinox. Northeast did not get the memo.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The promise of something big

     Last week I promised my manager that I would refrain from dark-toned posts bemoaning the sorry state of affairs in classical music and the often inappropriate and superficial methods of promotion being used to reel in audiences. Apparently, the whole subject is kind of a downer. I don’t see it that way, but then I also really like Schoenberg and therefore cannot fully trust my instincts. My dilemma is that the overly sensitive artist within is somehow not done with this subject. If I switch the emphasis to literature, music’s evil twin, am I breaking my vow?
     What set me off this time was all the recent isn’t-this-cool? coverage of the Moby-Dick “Big Read Project.” This is “an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.” Hold the presses! An American literary masterpiece, full of untapped contemporary significance…yet largely unread, you say? Enter the Big Read, hybrid fruit of an academic-style summit and the Web, with celebrities and politicians signing on out of the goodness of their hearts to spread the message about the life-altering power of great literature. How could I take offense at such a noble and selfless venture?
     Let me count the ways. To start, I’m not a fan of audio books. The way most people admit to using them-during long car trips to stave off boredom-is roughly akin to the widespread habit of playing CD’s in the background while eating, entertaining or engaging in some other completely unrelated activity. To me, entering the world of a fine piece of fiction, read by a gifted actor, while plummeting down the highway at 75 mph is about as dangerous as texting while driving, and the supposition that literature and music are created just to help pass the time or set a mood should be insulting to all artists. If you are unable to read due to some disability, of course audio books are wonderful and indispensable. Even so, there are already many fine recordings of Moby-Dick available (read, inexplicably, by only one person!) including free versions for immediate download. What rankles here is the growing assumption that everyone today suffers from attention deficit disorder, and must be lured in and kept still with a promise of constant novelty, whether or not this come-on is in any way appropriate to the work at hand. The multitasking Internet age, it is often claimed, has made all people so, and we can only hope to gain and hold the fickle interest of the public by constantly refreshing the cast of characters. Hence Tilda Swinton, David Cameron (!) and dozens of other celebrities and non-celebrities are brought together like a patchwork quilt to survey a work that, though certainly ranging through many characters and points-of-view, still relies crucially upon the single-voiced power of one author for its enduring brilliance and cumulative, hypnotic power. It would be nice if this quality was somewhat respected in its presentation.
     OK, I will admit there is a bit of goodness in all of this. Though a not-for-profit venture, donations received by the project go to whale and dolphin conservation, and who could argue with that? I listened to the first chapter with the estimable Ms. Swinton, and she was excellent. But just don’t ask me to go beyond; all continuity and artistic architecture would be instantly shattered for me upon the entry of the next new and unrelated voice. Can you imagine a performance of Chopin’s 24 Preludes where the pianist left the stage after each one and was replaced by another player? While we’re at it, wouldn't it be irresistible if some of the performers were local amateurs, or celebrities especially trained to appear like real pianists, like on Dancing With The Stars? Yes, you might have a sell-out house, but it would have nothing at all to do with Chopin’s magnificent, highly integrated masterpiece.
     As I have somehow slipped back into music-another broken promise-I've just completed a recording of Charles Ives’ Second Piano Sonata (the "Concord"), a work of similar magnitude to Moby-Dick in the realm of American art. Like that masterpiece, it is much more often discussed than actually experienced in its complex entirety. The edition of the sonata that I chose was published in 1982 by the Ives scholar and pianist John Kirkpatrick, and is itself a massive compilation of over thirty years-worth of Ives’ sketches and variants. Kirkpatrick’s goal was to bring out a version of the Concord that would recreate how the work might have sounded at its earliest conception in the 1910’s, as opposed to the highly revised and arguably less-digestible second edition of 1947. In fact, I do believe it is in many ways more playable and listenable than the later edition. Is this attempt to retell an established classic, in perhaps a more audience-friendly way, really any different in motivation than the Big Read? In choosing to perform and record it, am I any less guilty of pandering to accessibility? In my opinion there is a great difference. Regardless of Kirkpatrick’s decision to sew together, Dr. Frankenstein-like, hundreds of passages from different sources, what results is still the work of one very qualified and gifted mind in conjunction, medium-like, with another. My performance is the work of one pianist, though of course as in most all recordings, it is also the stitching together of multiple takes into a hopefully cohesive whole. But even a subconscious desire to please stops there. I would expect my listeners to attend to the music for the whole 50 minutes or so of its duration, as it is part of Ives’ design that every note on every page means something to the parts and to the whole, and the work can only reach its full emotional power in a cumulative way. I hope they would honor the quality of the recorded performance by listening somewhere other than in their car or on the subway. I expect them to be at times distracted, or even bored, and to accept the fact that it may be necessary to listen to the work-gasp!-more than once to gain understanding. This all requires a commitment to full, undivided attention as a prerequisite to a true artistic experience, and if there is a less rigorous substitute for this acquired skill, I’ve yet to discover what it is.
     There is certainly justification and even a necessity for collaboration and compilation in all the art we make, up until the time it is ready to come alive. If at that point we succumb to a variety show format out of a fear of complexity, or to satisfy an assumed shortfall in the attention span of our audience, we have crossed over from the world of fine art into the world of popular entertainment, however we label it or dress it up. Backbone becomes backbeat. Though these two dominant musical worlds inevitably influence each other, sometimes in exciting and productive ways, they are not the same thing and do not usually share anywhere near the same goals. And contrary to popular belief, times have not changed that much. Both the Concord and Moby-Dick were largely neglected when they were written, and remain so today, notwithstanding the ongoing effort of marketers to present fresh, enticing interfaces. Art isn't easy, Stephen Sondheim cautions. My secret hope is that this latest scheme to please devised by the Big Read folks will eventually prove irritating enough to drive people into the desperate but ultimately fulfilling act of just reading the book for themselves, once and for all.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Catchy title HERE

     Is classical music dying? This has been an increasingly burning question within our struggling world of art music creation, presentation and criticism over the last decade or so. Much writing has been done on the subject out of which continues to emerge various life-saving suggestions and directives for artists, administrators and marketers. I’m slightly wary of contributing more ideas to this admittedly important debate, for several reasons: I’m a happily iconoclastic and yes, slightly skeptical artist who doesn’t easily embrace one-size-fits-all solutions, regardless of their aptness; my work has always seemed to situate itself enough out of the mainstream not to warrant grandiose ambitions of universal adulation and big economic reward; and I also question the main assumption upon which these discussions seem to be based. The first two reasons are obviously the result of my own choices, but I feel the last calls for a little blogification.
     As I have come to see it a basic assumption of this musical round table is that viability equals market share. To justify our existence in the arts industry, compensation for our creations or performances must remain consistent or rise; the size of our audiences must always increase; our value to potential advertisers and marketers must always grow. This decidedly Western ethos is so deeply ingrained that it seems impossible or unrealistic to imagine our goals being otherwise. So why are we so surprised that as economies across the globe have shrunk dramatically and probably permanently, so has the demand for “non-essential” art music? I’m afraid that many of the responses to this perceived crisis arise from this market-based mentality. Students feel obligated to earn DMA's, regardless of their dedication to scholarship, in order to improve the very long odds of landing a well-paying job in the world of academia. Young musicians of promise are pushed by teachers to prepare often inappropriate and usually sadly conventional repertoire at younger and younger ages, in order to “compete” in the increasingly dog-eat-dog world of concert performance, rather than explore their individual strengths and interests. Orchestras and other music presenting organizations have become tools of their marketing departments, who continually press for increased audience “accessibility” by corralling sophisticated performances into insultingly childish theme groups. Artists are enjoined to be uniformly glamorous as well as business savvy and self-serving at all times, even though the grueling, self-denying and life-consuming nature of their process will in truth probably preclude anything of the sort. Sadly, I am finding that young artists view this situation as normal. I’m afraid that as long as we persist in portraying classical music as just another product line under the umbrella of capitalist enterprise, and teaching it as such, its demise is inevitable and in some ways deserved.
     So, Mr. Smarty-Pants, I hear you crying, what’s then to be done? Well, if the goal is simply economic viability, I really don’t know; large life-sustaining fees and fame haven’t been the norm in my career as a classical pianist, or in those of most of my peers. I have always found it necessary, and sometimes preferable, to engage in a wide variety of work-for-money activities to support my fine art habit. Sure, I grew up with all of this land-of-opportunity stuff and would at times like nothing more than to be paid $25,000 for a Brahms Horn Trio performance that, after all, took thousands of college-educated nerd hours to reach fruition, not to mention the cost of earplugs. I would like critics (who in this fantasy world are widely read and respected by all) to immediately applaud my miraculous achievement, so that their readers would quickly rush online to download badly-compressed versions of my CD’s (with free personalized travel mugs) while breathlessly awaiting each of my twitter emanations. I would love to see orchestras thriving instead of folding, schools expanding arts budgets instead of slashing “electives.” And despite my apparent cynicism, I totally applaud the brave and dedicated people out there trying to work within this highly compromised system to ensure the survival of our struggling arts institutions. Perhaps some of the clever and creative marketing angles being implemented today will help to stave off disaster. They are certainly not all without artistic merit. It’s just this: if you insist on reducing the experience of classical music down to a shiny bauble sold by a carny at an amusement park, the duped buyer will probably walk away feeling cheated in the end anyway, never to return.
     Instead, perhaps we could be asking: What does classical music really do? Why do we create it, make it happen, or need it? In my very humble opinion, it is an intensely powerful personal expression brought into a necessarily complex existence by highly intuitive artists for others to experience in real time. The amount of understanding that can be shared in this process is entirely dependent on the listener’s ability to receive, her education if you will, and the performer’s ability to communicate. Its goal is, or should be, to enrich, enhance, alter; to transport the listener in some lasting and profound way to a place of new and deeper awareness. We humans still seem to crave this opportunity to go beyond; we continually seek it in classical music, visual art and literature regardless of reward or difficulty. But let’s face it, this promise of enrichment is not an easy sell compared to say, a Big Mac or a pop tune. On 60 Minutes last night, when asked about the secret to her overnight international success, the sensational singer Adele drew the distinction perfectly (if unknowingly) in her refreshingly self-effacing way. To paraphrase her: “Look, people just really like songs about love and betrayal, and that also happens to be what I like to sing.” But in our situation, no matter how you try to market the Symphonie Fantastique, it is never going to be simply about love frustrated, and was never intended to be. Some would have us believe that the end justifies the means; all we need to do is get people through the door and into a seat, by whatever means necessary, and they will inevitably become lifelong appreciators of classical music. But I believe we do a disservice to the music and its audience by oversimplifying, demystifying and dis-empowering the magic of complexity in order to lure in possibly unreceptive or unwilling listeners. We rob them of the opportunity of discovering, when they are ready and without bias, the difference between the wondrous ineffability of fine art and the everyday barrage of mass market culture.
     I’m not sure if this magical substance is marketable in the ways we have traditionally embraced, or even if the need for it will survive in today's turbulent seas of commercialism and greed. However, I suspect that spurious claims of popularity and accessibility will do nothing to build lasting audiences for our work, and may even prevent a true seeker from finding his muse.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

John Cage et alia, redux

      Based on the recent spurt of John Cage tribute articles and performances, you would think that he was one of the most beloved, inspirational and seminal composers of all time, that 4’33” was a crucial turning point in the history of music, that his greatly varied and fine works are eagerly anticipated staples of concert programs the world over. The real and more sad truth is, he had to die and then turn 100 for his works and writing to return this much into the public eye, and his compositions will likely lapse again into relative obscurity by the time the November elections roll around, or even before.
     You might assume from my smug tone that this is yet another curmudgeonly dismissal of John Cage’s oeuvre as anti-music, as gimmick and trend, as concept without true content. Certainly this opinion of Cage is still common among many classical musicians today-whether or not they have actually heard or played any of his works-but I am inclined neither to overpraise nor censor him. Over the years I have programmed a few of his piano compositions here and there, and in college became excited enough about Silence to write an extremely long and quite terrible paper exalting its revolutionary brilliance. In fact I still believe this, and I think it is truly wonderful that so much attention is being paid him on this anniversary, even if it took ridiculously long to happen. Which leads so nicely into my favorite obsession: Why is so much music from the 20th century so very greatly admired in print and conversation, and then completely ignored or sidelined by today’s classical performers, educators, presenters and audiences, unless they live and work in Greenwich Village?
     The obvious answer is too obvious, and therefore somewhat true but not true at all: the various languages of classical music modernism and post-modernism, taken as a whole, are too ugly, too hard to comprehend, too challenging to the limited attention span of the layperson, too uncompromising, too fatalistic or depressing, too…modern. But here’s the thing: a typical audience member in 1804 would have probably had much the same reaction to the Eroica Symphony, regardless of Beethoven’s undeniably consummate brilliance. So why do we still hear one hundred Eroica performances annually for every Sessions 2nd Symphony? One hundred Opus 109’s for every Hindemith sonata?  I don’t think it is merely an issue of relative quality or accessibility. I think it has much more to do with a disappointing lack of curiosity, courage, willingness and openness on the part of too many professional musicians and arts presenters. There, I’ve said it. May the Internet spread it.
     Before I go pointing my ten fingers at everyone else for the neglect of contemporary classical repertoire-although, what is a blog for if you can’t blame others for the world’s problems?-let me tell my own John Cage story. I am embarrassed to admit that the last work of his that I performed was Water Music, and that was some ten years ago. The piece involves a rather virtuosic sequence of sound events, some at the piano, some using difficult-to-master noise making devices such as a little plastic bird call toy that you dip into water and blow through. It also calls for a transistor radio, which even a decade ago was impossible to find, so I had to substitute a suitably retro portable dial-type unit from Radio Shack. At several points in the score, the dial is to be spun to various specified frequencies, and whatever comes up, be it static, talk, music or nothing at all, that is what you get. As you can imagine, the piece has its lighthearted moments, and drew the usual titters of knowing amusement from the audience. But right near the end, when I tuned the radio to its final notated frequency, the last few bars of Let it Be materialized faintly and then drifted eerily into the ether. It also happened to be the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder that day. You could have heard a pin drop, and it was like the whole world of music was suddenly sucked into a magical vortex. At that moment, I can guarantee you that no one in the audience was making a cursory or dismissive judgment upon the enduring quality of John Cage or “modern” music. Life met music met performer met audience, and that’s what it’s all about.
     So, the bad news is…I’ve never programmed the piece again. I came upon the wrinkly, water-damaged score a while back, and ran my fingers over Cage’s crabbed notation wistfully. Isn’t this a big part of the problem? If I had added this piece to my regular repertoire, including it on almost every program, eventually people would become Water Music aficionados, more and more attuned to the subtleties of its language and effect, their understanding informed through the power of comparative experience, as if it were a familiar work of Chopin or Bach. Other pianists would no doubt also begin to play the piece with greater frequency in order to prove they could do it better and with much more depth of understanding than I. Critics would then jump in to delineate right from wrong: too much legato from Mr. X, a memory slip from Mr. Y, a definitive (but alas, too slow) version from Mrs. Z. Old timers would reminisce about the legendary Martin Perry performance when Lennon spoke from the dead. In short, it might eventually become a part of a new “standard” repertoire, expected and demanded by presenters and audiences alike. And this kind of buzz, excitement and energy is what is needed right now to combat the growing perception that classical music and the audiences it serves are dying off.
     My shameful Water Music abandonment aside, I have since been trying to remedy this situation in my own modest way, but it obviously takes a village. The most important people in this process are educators, from beginning instrument teachers to those at the very top of academia. They must begin more to INSIST on attention to a full range of repertoire, encourage more curiosity and exploration in students, empowering them with all the tools they need to decipher and interpret more and more complex musical emanations. Otherwise music stiffens up and stops around 1885, and we will deserve the label of irrelevance that has more and more been slapped onto classical music. As I have already said, we musicians have an enormous role in this process as well; not only should we challenge the status quo by continually and stubbornly programming challenging works for our audiences to accustom to, we must also demonstrate our love and deep understanding of this fine music with tangibly gripping performances, all the time. When we collaborate, we should lobby more noisily for repertoire expansion instead of resigning ourselves to another Brahms quartet or Mozart concerto.
     There is some reason to hope that arts presenters are beginning to see the value of adventurous programming as well. In this regard, “new” music seems to fare the best, due to what I like to call the “premiere” effect: people love to be able to say they were the first to hear, see or do something, to be perceived as cutting edge, whether the thing being done is good, bad or indifferent. In any case, if the finest of these works are not championed by musicians, presenters and educators, and performed regularly, we will never know what impact they could eventually have on the course of musical thought. As for the audience, I believe that if you build it, they will come. Contrary to common opinion, I don’t sense that classical music is anywhere near dead, just suffering from a nasty, hard-to-shake case of small-mindedness.
     Maybe this is why John Cage is so important right now. He challenges us to imagine a world of sound as awesomely big as silence itself, as vastly inclusive as indeterminacy. We can only truly realize this exciting and yes, modern vision by celebrating all the music of all the many unsung composers of our recent era, not just in their birthday years, but every time we walk onstage and into the recording studio. Beethoven can take care of himself without our help.