Making Classical New
Arthur Rubinstein was one of the greatest piano performers of the 20th century, renowned for his unmatchable tone and the creativity of his playing. But he was not known for technical perfection. In fact, when he recorded music, he left his mistakes in, rather than editing them out. When asked why, he answered, “I’m after the music, not after perfection.”
Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.
This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”
Greg Sandow, a music critic, composer, and Juilliard lecturer, remembers a young violist at the conservatory who wanted to join a prestigious orchestra. She attended a music camp that taught her exactly how to play—dictating the precise amounts of seconds she should pause, directing the tiniest details of her artistic expression. She had to play within these constraints in order to please at her audition. “She was never allowed to play the way she wanted,” Sandow says.
“Technique is only a vehicle through which you develop your artistry,” says Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard, in a phone interview. “If you don’t communicate to your audience, you aren’t presenting your art. Technical performances that are perfect could be given through a machine—performance is about human communication.”
But the classical-music world has created a field in which musicians are expected to do the same things over and over, with the same tone, pitch, lilt, fingering, and pauses as the next performer. This perfectionism may make it easier to weed out applicants in search of a first-chair bassoonist, but it also means that musicians—and innovation itself—are left outside in the cold.
“It’s a brutally high level of competition,” says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a professional French hornist. “It’s just like professional sports, it just doesn’t pay as well.”
This intensifying competition is in part a response to the contraction of the classical-music profession, as orchestras brave a double-whammy of dwindling funds and diminishing audiences. While there is still a market for classical music, it has increasingly become a niche market—and this reduction has taken a toll on the available supply of jobs. Thousands of applicants show up to auditions for the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Symphony, and other top orchestras, even as thousands more young musicians spill from the doors of the nation’s top conservatories, diplomas and instruments in hand.
Recorded music continues to take a toll on orchestras as well: why attend a concert, when you can buy an album from iTunes or listen to it on Spotify? Live performances have become a costly and unnecessary luxury. We no longer need listen to a live orchestra to experience their music—especially since the nature of classical canon guarantees you will hear the same music, with the same tones and performance, every time. Though people will go to pop concerts to hear their favorite covers live, pop artists’ performances feature light shows and fog machines, huge interactive backdrops and hashtags for Twitter users. They encourage their audiences to use cellphones, to scream and clap along. Compare this with the stillness and dignity of a classical music performance.
Yet even as technology has given other genres an advantage and set seemingly inflexible standards for young classical musicians to meet, it may also be starting to give conservatory musicians new outlets for their creativity and new audiences for their work—ultimately leading, perhaps, to new career paths. Classical musicians are using tools like YouTube and Facebook to build their own audiences, and they’re beginning to re-think classical music performances in a way that will appeal to a younger generation.
Take the Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet, a group based at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York: they uploaded a video to YouTube video of their ensemble playing Lady Gaga covers and sent links to the clip to family members and fellow bassoonists. Slowly but surely, the video built a wider and wider audience—not primarily among Lady Gaga fans but among the musicians and music aficionados who appreciated this mixing of pop culture and classical culture. The video currently has about 400,000 views.
Similarly, the Piano Guys, a duo featuring pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, became a YouTube phenomenon when they began uploading instrumental covers of pop songs and modern twists on old classical favorites. Some would argue this isn’t “real” classical music—and it isn’t, in terms of following the canon. But by branching out from traditional mediums and canonical works, these musicians are opening the world of classical music to younger artists and audiences. Many are performing in new venues, too: looking beyond the concert hall to coffee shops, restaurants, parks, malls, and city squares.
Classical baritone Jesse Blumberg created the Five Boroughs Music Festival (5BMF) in 2007 in this spirit: it’s a nonprofit organization that performs concerts in nontraditional venues throughout New York City. Their performances usually feature a diverse repertoire, including early music, tango, jazz, and original string-band music. They also offer public master classes, “artistic talk-backs,” and outreach concerts for local philanthropic work.
Even top conservatories are today encouraging their students to think innovatively. “The biggest buzzword at conservatories these days is entrepreneurship,” says Sandow. “Schools are eager to at least make a gesture toward encouraging students to forge their own careers, in their own ways.”
Polisi says Juilliard is working to promote innovation by teaching students to communicate their craft through new mediums, to write and speak in public about their art, and to use technology to foster their work and build an audience. One Juilliard bassoonist gave a concert featuring indie rock-song variations alongside classical works. Another student, a comedian as well as a musician, put together a “Carnival of the Animals” concert, in which the Saint-Saëns music was coupled with storytelling and stand-up comedy.
Indiana’s DePauw University, which features one of the nation’s top music schools, has recently designed an entrepreneurial arts program called “The 21st-Century Musician Initiative.” According to the university’s website, the program is a “complete re-imagining” of what it means to be a classical musician. They want students to become flexible and entrepreneurial, to “find musical venues and outlets in addition to traditional performance spaces, develop new audiences and utilize their music innovatively to impact and strengthen communities.” Students can attend workshops in marketing and learn business skills. Senior recitals must not only feature excellent artistry—they must also be personally produced. Students track down their own venues, order their own programs, and do their own marketing.
Though these innovative classes are not required, Sandow says they have been very popular, and admissions at the university “shot up” as a result. “Students are more than ready for this,” he said. “They’re thinking entrepreneurially already, thanks to the wonderful climate of entrepreneurship in our world these days…”
Some classical music purists are likely to be shocked and alarmed by such developments. They represent an upheaval—a break from the conventions of the past. Some might even say they smack of progressivism.
But more traditional forms of classical music aren’t going anywhere. The New York Philharmonic will continue to hire the nation’s top musicians and perform to sold-out crowds. Classical music aficionados will continue to throng to hear Itzhak Perlman’s violin or to hear Handel’s “Messiah” performed at Christmastime.
Nevertheless, classical music is an art, and art must be “made new” with time, coupling the beauty of the old with the freshness of the new. Art cannot be reduced to mere technicality and rote skills. And classical music has always been a realm of creativity and innovation.
“The composers [we] like the most were innovators,” Arthur Brooks observes. Beethoven’s masterful creativity ushered in the Romantic era. Controversial composers from Debussy to Stravinsky eventually made their way into the classical canon. Their music was timeless and deep, even as it offered an important insight into their age—a glimpse into the collective philosophical and cultural moment they lived in.
“The whole idea that [classical music] should be solidified in amber—that’s a huge, real mistake,” Brooks says. “We shouldn’t reproduce the same things over and over that were new and innovative in their time. This is part of humanity: creativity and expression.”
Will this sort of entrepreneurship “save” classical music? There’s debate about whether the classical world needs saving at all: though the culture is small, it is vibrant. But enabling musicians to innovate both inside and outside the concert hall promises to make this culture better for musicians themselves, opening opportunities for them to express their art, build larger audiences, and—let’s hope—discover new career possibilities.
Perhaps because of the globalized and technological character of our time, musicians will never again feel the sense of imaginative release that was customary in bygone days. This is the era of the powerfully technical Lang Lang, not the messily creative Rubinstein. But there is growing room for players to make music their own and extend it into new mediums without fear of rejection. We may now be past the age of happily recorded mistakes, but we aren’t past the age of Beethoven-inspired innovation.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.