Classical Music Artistry

Anna Netrebko in San Francisco in 2010

Angela Gheorghiu with Ella García in San Francisco in 2010

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Classical Music Artistry

I find the cited article published in the New Republic (which magazine I now conclude to be high-brow garbage) to be stupid:

https://newrepublic.com/article/160469/insidious-classism-classical-music

To me, the writer comes off a classist who seeks populist credibility (he’s pop washing). So, let me straighten you all out about classical music in today’s America.

Classical music is a refined art. I am referring to European classical music specifically; but there is no implication here that other forms of classical music — Indian for example — are inferior, they are just different. A true devotee of fine music understands that quality is the essential value, and style is incidental and just a personal preference.

It requires great skill and knowledge to create and perform classical music. That means its practitioners have to devote much of their lives to listening, learning, study and practice (lots and lots of practice) in order to be able to present themselves as good classical music artists — as good as they would like to imagine they could be. It is a calling, an avocation, the sustenance of which also requires its practitioners to be able to peddle themselves off for slots in the job market, always the dreariest of chores for the artistically inclined.

A fraction of classical musicians manage to get paid gigs as members of elite ensembles, like continuing symphony orchestras and opera companies, but these are a minority. It’s just like shooting hoops, millions do it in schoolyards and backlots, but only a sliver of that population of dreamers actually get paid anything for presenting the very specialized skillful use of their bodies.

I personally know a conservatory trained opera singer, who has a long history of paid gigs in regional and local opera companies — which may mount a few of productions every year, perhaps up to a week’s worth of work for a performer — who has scratched a living by giving lessons and working in low level and temporary office jobs like selling classified ad space in a local ‘shopping guide’ newspaper to merchants. This person is in her 60s and has no real savings. But she has devoted herself to her art and been recognized by an internationally known and sought-after opera composer (for a character performance in his opera — I was there), among other professional classical music personalities.

Having been to several local opera productions in Berkeley, I had the chance to meet many people whose classical music careers have a similar profile. Many of these people are young and incredibly accomplished musicians who are seeking to associate themselves with serious opera productions even if it means driving halfway across California to man the wine and hors d’oeuvre table for the reception afterwards. Those food goodies are donated by fans with a bit more in the bank. The helpers will crash where they can before carpooling for their return trips to their places in the provinces.

Most people “in” classical music struggle to self-fund their study of and continuation in classical music. The idea of classical music as pure snobbishness comes from three sources:

— the focus by elite-aspiring music critic-writers (parasites) on the elite of classical music, and their complete dismissal and ignorance of the mass of classical music aficionados out in the demos,

— the encrustation of the glitterati-aspiring wealthy around classical music events and high-end organizations,

— the steep ‘learning curve’ to become a credible practitioner of classical music, which puts off many people challenged by poverty from getting as good an education as they could wish (in anything), and who may also feel no cultural connection to the cultures from which European classical music originated.

The first item is just another instance of jerk parasite critic-writers mired in celebrity culture: garbage for empty and consumerist minds.

The second item is similar to the first, by wealthy parasitic empty and consumerist minds indulging in narcissism, often by arts-donation-washing to polish their imagined halos.

This brings us to the conditions that enable classical music organizations to continue existing, as well as the original conditions that allowed classical music compositions to arise.

An organization like a major philharmonic orchestra or opera company that mounts a full season every year requires a great deal of money to pay for all the musicians, stage hands and numerous other ancillary professionals required, as well as their facilities. Such pay may be considerable for some of the top performers, because they are in high demand because they are just so good.

And that is what such high-end classical music organizations are intended to do: to gather as many of the best performers as possible, meld them into as organic an ensemble as possible, and present classical music, opera and dance of as high an order as such ensembles can achieve. The end product is the delight and inspiration of the audience, which can include way up in the back row of the balcony some of those classical music kids who drove from Fresno to San Francisco for the show. My college student father would buy standing-room-only tickets on the nights of shows at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1940s to see singers like Lily Pons. He saw all the great operas this way; and he was a tenor.

A few of those SRO and balcony kids might eventually break into the big time, like Anna Netrebko — an amazing and radiant soprano — who worked her way up from cleaning bathrooms in Siberia to get through music school, to being a well-deserved international phenomenon. Another such phenomenon is Angela Gheorghiu, who had to navigate her early career through the corruption of Ceausescu’s Romania. I took my younger daughter to see operas with each of these leading ladies — incandescent performances — and they were very sweet to my 10-year-old girl. Why? because they remember where they came from.

So, the directors of classical music organizations (the money men) have to cajole, entice and flatter wealthy patrons — which sometimes includes the Federal and State governments — to fork over bundles of spondulix in order to keep the doors open. Hence the coddling of the American bumpkin aristocracy. Ticket sales are never enough in the U.S. In Europe, where governments are more generous with arts funding because they are maintaining the essence of their cultures, ticket prices are widely affordable. And guess what?, the classical music halls in Europe have large and steady audiences as a result.

It is true that Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and many other classical music stars, had elite patronage that enabled them to compose and perform and not starve to death for doing so. Back then there was no ‘corporate classical music safety net’ if you want to call it that, and the great classical music stars of old times had to do their own money-man schemes for their own survival. And it is never pretty holding out your hand, even if you really are an artist. Ticket sales were never enough.

But the annoyance of encrustation onto classical music by the empty-headed glitterati-aspiring was still present. In a letter to his father, Wolfgang Gottlieb/Amadeus Mozart famously complained that one of his performances was treated as background muzak by the assembled aristocrats (he needed the money), talking and paying scant attention to the actual performance, and that the chairs they sat on were better listeners (and more intelligent!). Artists want their art regarded with full attention and critical appreciation, not relegated as background decoration.

There are always bigots and careerist mediocrities who try to take on the superiority attitudes of the wealthy patrons of their field, and it is unfortunate indeed when a young student is confronted with one of these as a ‘teacher.’ Truly superior talents have no need for snobbishness or of a patronizing attitude. When you observe these in a ‘highly ranked’ professional in any field it is usually a cover for deep-seated insecurity and intrinsic mediocrity. I certainly found this to be true in professional physics and science. It is unfortunate for classical music as a whole that such assholes can tar the entire genre in the minds of many ‘regular folks.’

The issue of the dense filter to mass inclusion as performers presented by the steep learning curve will always be with classical music. It is an essential part of the refinement of the art, just like the multi-year aging that separates fine wines from chug-a-jugs. American critics of classicism in classical music are usually pointing to the low proportion of African Americans in the genre. Of course there have been and are fantastic African American classical music performers: Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Wilhelmenia Fernandez, Denyse Graves, quickly come to mind. What drives people into seeking to be classical music artists is the desire to go beyond the technical limitations of popular music, and to go beyond the simpler appeals to the ear and to the emotions of popular music.

The one genre that can rival classical music in this regard is (the best of) American Jazz. However, the idea that jazz is all free-flowing improvisation is wrong; it has a very strict etiquette of ensemble performance, and a very traditional orthodoxy regarding reverence for its cannon. There can be much free-flowing noodling during rehearsals to find the right grooves for performance nights (and occasional days), and which performances then host sequences for solos which may contain busts of improvisation supported by ensemble play in the background. Pure set pieces with song can drift into being show music.

Where jazz is most artistic and classical is where a dedicated practitioner performs a timeless composition with fidelity to the original, repeatedly over the years, and makes it fresh every time for every audience; because for some of the people hearing it live it may be their first time. Joe DiMaggio (“Joltin’ Joe” and “The Yankee Clipper”), who had a hit nearly every three times at bat during a 13 year career (0.325 batting average) had said he always tried getting a hit each time at bat to delight a kid probably in the stands who had been taken to this one game in hopes of seeing a baseball hero knock one out of the park. Joe DiMaggio was a classical baseball player.

So the only real barrier to getting into classical music is the self-imposed one of not wanting to do so. The connection to all previous artists in that genre is the desire to hear, know, compose and perform music at its technical and artistic best: quality is the essence. That draw of quality has brought people of all kinds and from all cultures-of-birth into the classical music world. And such new blood helps invigorate and evolve a timeless art form. Barriers to “inclusion” into classical music “society” (a.k.a. money and celebrity — nothing to do with art) which are imposed by wealthy, ignorant and bigoted snobs and mediocrities, are failures of character by those people and are not an intrinsic aspect of the classical music genre itself.

Having a character of quality is “classical,” the one exceptional talent that anyone can choose to possess.

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