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  • Ronald E. Grames
    Apropos the current discussion of fools, here are some thoughts from Mr. Hurwitz on the classical music crisis that don t seem so foolish. By the way, both
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2002
      Apropos the current discussion of "fools," here are some thoughts from Mr.
      Hurwitz on the classical music "crisis" that don't seem so foolish.

      By the way, both came from Mr. Hurwitz's web site, www.classicstoday.com.

      Ron Grames


      Are The Classics Wearing Out?
      Classical music consumers continue to benefit from a simple fact: there has
      never been more stuff of such high quality available at such low prices, and
      the new releases just keep on coming, month after month. Still, over the
      past several weeks I have read innumerable articles about the idiocies of
      the record industry, the lack of adventuresome live programming,
      conservatism in the selection of new music directors of major American
      orchestras, the dearth of "greatness" in performance -- the litany of gripes
      is endless. I never cease to be amazed by the barrage of complaints coming
      routinely from listeners, critics, retailers, and CD producers. Then it hit
      me: What if there's something behind all of this bitching and moaning? What
      if this near universal, restless dissatisfaction (not to be confused with a
      restless dissatisfaction with Universal) has a simple underlying cause
      arising somehow from the music itself? Is the industry in crisis, or are
      today's listeners? What else accounts for the otherwise inexplicable fact
      that the more choices it has, the less happy the classical music audience
      evidently becomes?

      Perhaps you find this notion heretical. Well then, consider just how
      peculiar the current situation is, historically speaking. Let's start with
      the very basics of our experience as listeners. We probably all agree that
      the great classics were, and for the most part still are, written to be
      enjoyed in concert. Recordings offer only an approximation of the live
      event. Nevertheless, this is how most people now get their regular musical
      fix. But more to the point, our perception of the VALUE of the classics as
      an entertainment experience is based on a fundamental assertion of the
      music's supreme quality arising at least in part out of its (until recently)
      scarcity and inaccessibility. So what happens when something that used to be
      rare becomes ubiquitous? Like the cost of pocket calculators and microwave
      ovens, the price declines rapidly, but so does the product's sense of
      "specialness," "uniqueness," "exclusivity," and so on.

      Given this fact you might still argue legitimately that the "cultural aura"
      of classical music has nothing to do with its value as "music", and is
      merely a snobbish vestige of self-conscious elitism. True enough. But
      inextricably bound up with the cultural value question, is the fact that we
      also claim that a "classic" continuously rewards the listener upon
      repetition, and can sustain innumerable different, equally valid
      interpretive approaches. I still believe this, but the issue is complicated
      by the fact that while it's possible to make this case technically as a
      discussion of music only, very few contemporary listeners would understand
      this approach because, unlike audiences at live concerts in previous
      centuries, modern record collectors are often untrained, ignorant of even
      the basics of musical nomenclature.

      I'm not saying that you need to study music to "appreciate" the classics,
      but it certainly helps if you want to know what makes a piece of music
      "great", and even more in trying to understand the differences between
      multiple performances of the same work. Barring that, the average enthusiast
      derives his faith in classical music's importance and value almost wholly
      from the cultural arena. So strong, in fact, is the lure of the elitist
      mentality that I believe many industry professionals, including performers
      and critics, accept it because it plays to their notions of self-importance
      in a way that a purely musical approach obviously cannot. And so we have a
      classical music culture that validates itself more from "culture" than from
      "music." Into this scenario comes the recording glut of the past two
      decades, taking something which used to be a rare, ephemeral experience, and
      asking listeners to derive pleasure from and find meaning in a depth of
      often trivial performance detail that only the players themselves ever
      encounter. It's a combustible mixture.

      I can well remember in the 60s, 70s, and even early 80s, just how special or
      rare recordings of certain pieces were. Take Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, for
      example, a piece that for years existed as a specialty item, infrequently
      performed and recorded. At the dawn of the CD era, there was only one
      recording available in the new medium (a lousy sounding old Furtwängler
      wartime broadcast), and then finally Karajan's DG version appeared. Yes,
      there had been other versions on LP, particularly Jochum's, and Haitink's,
      but it was quite a while before they joined the party. Now, I count 35
      versions in my own collection, and I can think of at least a dozen more. And
      this is nothing compared to what has happened with the so-called "popular"
      classics. What great composer of the past could ever have imagined the
      possibility of listening to literally dozens, even hundreds, of versions of
      his works anytime we feel like it? Remember this also: one of the reasons
      the old classical repertoire was so small was because audiences naturally
      craved novelty, and gave priority not to "ancient music," but to new works.
      I raise this issue not to take up once again the boring discussion of the
      "crisis" of contemporary music, but rather to emphasize the fact that even
      when it comes to the so-called "classics," variety matters. A lot.

      Might it not be the case that some of the frustration that produces the
      current chorus of complaints stems from the fact that the music itself in
      such quantity simply cannot sustain even a sympathetic listener's interest?
      Can anyone's memory of a large work be specific enough to encompass
      accurately the unique, meaningful details that distinguish dozens of
      versions from each other? In short, has listening to yet another recording
      of the same work become a chore, irrespective of the quality of the
      performance itself? Has it produced a legion of listeners unable to hear
      anything but the most obvious or exaggerated aspects of an interpretation,
      or worse, one whose concept of greatness is a function of "difference" for
      its own sake? I believe that at least for some people, possibly many, the
      answer unfortunately is "Yes."

      Now add to this sad fact the general sense of the classics as infinitely
      repeatable and valuable by virtue not of their musical quality, but their
      cultural significance. The result can only be an increasing sense of
      disappointment, fear, defensiveness--even anger. If this music is so damn
      important and wonderful, then why am I so bored? Am I really supposed to get
      excited over yet another recording of Brahms' First Symphony? It must be the
      fault of the conductor, or the record company, or the orchestra, or everyone
      at once. After all, does anyone honestly believe that even the most rabid
      collector will play through fifty or sixty recordings of the same piece in
      rapid succession in order to determine precisely how the new one stacks up
      in his personal pantheon? Or will he instead rely on his all too fallible
      memory to see him through, which will necessarily favor whatever version
      sticks out most strongly in his mind? And what a job for us critics! Isn't
      it easier simply to favor some older recording dating from a period when the
      critic actually listened carefully and comparatively, or to focus instead on
      some non-musical aspect such as the performer's nationality, or personal
      friendship with the label (two popular criteria), and so discount the
      newcomer offhand?

      How else can we describe the general indifference among listeners and
      critics that greets what used to be considered important, exciting, and even
      career-defining projects, such as a fabulous new Beethoven symphony cycle
      (Barenboim), a superb set of the complete Haydn string quartets (Angeles
      Quartet), sensational editions of listenable, attractive new music on labels
      such as BIS (Holmboe symphonies), Marco Polo (Lajtha symphonies and
      orchestral music), and CPO (symphonies by Atterberg, Antheil, or
      Villa-Lobos), a wonderfully conducted new Ring cycle (Barenboim again), or
      such massive projects as Hänssler's complete Bach, or Hungaroton's complete
      Bartók. Never mind whether you agree or disagree with the quality of
      performance: thirty years ago releases such as this would have mattered.
      They would have been discussed, listened to, publicized, eagerly
      anticipated, and more to the point, purchased.

      When some jaded listener starts talking about modern performances sounding
      "the same," how much of this stems really from his own inability to hear
      meaningful differences between them? And can we blame him? The popular media
      is full of articles about the desensitizing qualities of Rap music, but no
      one dares raise the issue in the classical arena. Can Beethoven's "Eroica"
      really remain interesting the hundredth time around in just a couple of
      years, or does it eventually dull the senses just as overindulgence of other
      kinds invariably will? Like a richly seasoned gourmet meal, how much
      classical music is too much? Are we living in the world of "A Clockwork
      Orange", where excessive exposure to the classics has become all unknowingly
      an instrument of torture or aversion therapy? Or is the current situation
      analogous to the commonly heard cable television whine: 200 channels and
      nothing to watch!

      I don't have an easy answer to these questions, and I suspect it may be
      different for each person. But there's no doubt in my mind that more than
      the record market has reached the point of saturation, and that a lot of the
      frustration being voiced stems from a basic fear that our tried and true
      definition of a "classic" as something infinitely repeatable and ever
      relevant just might no longer apply. This is especially likely if the
      perception of the classical repertoire's artistic value stems less from
      musical than from cultural assumptions, whether cynically self-serving or
      grounded in a simple lack of musical knowledge. Of course, you may agree
      with this hypothesis or not, but it seems to me indisputable that the
      validity of our definition of classical music is being tested as never
      before, with consequences no one can guess.

      -- Dave Hurwitz

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