Classical Music Artistry

Anna Netrebko in San Francisco in 2010

Angela Gheorghiu with Ella García in San Francisco in 2010

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

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.

<><><><><><><>

The Smoke Rings of My Mind

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

The Smoke Rings of My Mind

I landed in college as a green wide-eyed freshman, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (NOT Penn State!), in September 1968. This was an explosive year, to my mind the most pivotal one in the United States since 1945. My dorm room was in a short cul-de-sac second floor hallway of the large antique pseudo Oxford-Cambridge style ivy-festooned stone masonry men’s dorm quadrangle building off Spruce Street.

I felt really good to finally have gotten out of the prison day-camp Catholic boys high school I’d been in for 4 years, and out of the nice suburban North Shore Long Island town my family lived in during my adolescence (before that being in New York City); and I had a brand spanking new draft deferment that I thought would insulate me from the carnage of the Vietnam War, which was at its peak at that time with the Tet Offensive.

In fact, Lyndon Johnson’s televised speech with the surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection in November 1968 happened two days after my 18th birthday, after which I had to troop down to the post office and register for the draft. That didn’t feel too good believe me, because I’d watched the news and read the papers daily all through high school. Those were my “Greta Thunberg” years, 1964-1968: from the Bay of Tonkin con-job and 1965’s Marine invasion of South Vietnam — “escalatio” as Tom Lehrer called it — to Tet, erupting on January 31, 1968, and pulsing through three bloody phases that year; when I was dreading the fucked-up situation the adults were shoving my way (you know: die for us, it’s good for “the country”).

My own priorities were: #1, study engineering so I could become the next Enzo Ferrari and build my own sports cars; #2, find receptive female companionship to find an outlet for my raging testosterone levels; and #3, stay out of Vietnam. I was not wise as an 18-year-old, I was NORMAL, having been instructed about women (“girls” was the pre-feminist term used then) by Beach Boys songs (those cherub troubadours of the white colonial culture of the Occupied Territories of Mexico’s northern part of Baja California) and Sophia Loren movies.

In the decades since then I’ve come to realize how difficult it is for women everywhere, and most certainly in the United States with its huge proportion of knucklehead males, to accept becoming the “second mothers” to so many needy fake-macho lunkheads: pickings for good husbands, mates and sperm donors (drones in the Bee World) can be slim for so many alert and intelligent women.

But, in the fall of 1968 I was feeling good and with high hopes. I burrowed enthusiastically into my school work and got on the Dean’s List. Three of us in our hallway were socially awkward and stayed in at night from lack of alternatives and fear blunting initiative. Besides, all the coeds had lots of upperclassmen to pick from and who owned cars and had money to spend. So, Joe Williams invited two or three of us to listen to his Bob Dylan records (note: using a plug-in electric machine that played vinyl discs to produce recorded music sounds).

Now, I had heard all the pop music of the day every day before that, because I had gone to my somewhat distant high school in a carpool driven by a neighbor boy’s father (a NYC fireman with rank, so lots of time to call his own), in a Ford Econoline van (a very cute unsafe-as-hell design), and Robert (the son) would put on the radio for every trip. Beside hearing it all in this way (the grating falsetto Sherry Baby too, too many times, but the Rascals on “Good Lovin’” was the best), and outside school it was so easy to hear spillover sounds from radios playing everywhere. At home I listened to the classical music and Spanish Zarzuelas (operettas) so close to my heart. So, by September 1968 I knew about Dylan’s hit songs up to that point.

But, Joe Williams said we had to hear Dylan the right way. Joe turned us on to grass: marijuana. We would sit up through the night listening to Dylan’s 1965 and 1966 albums: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde.” We laughed our asses off totally stoned listening to “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” — “everybody must get stoned!” — yeah. It was so hilarious to read the “adult” press on this, where the experts saw in this song a deep poetic cry of alienation. Man, the adult world is just one big blivet of puffery.

I had heard all the popular folk music during its period of prominence, which coincided with the Civil Rights movement from about 1961 to its crescendo in August 1963 when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream to the nation and world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (which is my favorite single building in Washington D.C.), until its triumphs with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At that point Bob Dylan checked out of the topical political protest folk singer-songwriter role he’d mastered, and moved on artistically. No creative person can stand typecasting. Dylan’s early career in pure folk music was masterful, but I wasn’t into folk music. I turned onto Dylan when he went electric. For me a good song has both good words (even poetry) plus lots of really good instrumental music. And this essay is, believe it or not, about that.

Bob Dylan went on tour in 1966, backed by a 5 piece rock band, 4 of whose musicians (except the drummer) were a longtime group that would emerge on their own in 1968 as “The Band.” Dylan was booed at all his concerts in Europe and at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, as a “traitor” to the pure folk music style his earlier audiences had typecast him into. Even his pals Pete Seeger and Joan Baez were put off. Why?

In the late 1930s, Frank Sinatra exploded into popularity because he revolutionized how pop music was delivered to the fans. Earlier singing phenomena, like Bing Crosby, knew how to croon with projection to make up for the deficiencies of the crude electrified public address systems of the times, if one even existed in the halls they sang in. By Frank’s high school years (which he bailed out on) microphones and amplifiers were improving significantly (“modern” hi-fi equipment was finally introduced by RCA in 1941).

Tony Bennett has perceptively pointed out that with this new equipment Frank Sinatra did not need to project, so he “made love to the microphone” and sang in a very intimate style, and which every listener in the dance halls and over the radio broadcasts felt was delivered just to them, person-to-person. The Bobby-Soxers went ape-shit over this, a mega-scale precursor to the Beatlemania of 20 years later.

This is where Frank Sinatra was a pivotal figure in the evolution of broadcast popular music: he had that smooth melting crooner’s voice (and had even taken voice lessons from an ex-Metropolitan Opera vocal coach), he had lovely breath control (much learned from Jo Stafford, listen to her meltingly wonderful “The Nearness of You”) with which to fashion long lingering phrases, and he had that intimate emotional and yet cool even vulnerable at times feeling, which he conveyed so convincingly.

Bob Dylan’s folk music was conveyed to his initially small audiences in just this intimate way. Even without a P.A. system, a non-projective (non-operatic, non-Irish tenor) style of singing was just fine in the always small coffee houses and folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early 1960s. And of course, Dylan’s albums from 1961 to 1964 carried his recorded intimate-delivery folk music far and wide.

Now, the American folk music of the early ’60s was nothing like the polished hip big band standards that Frank Sinatra put out, but even at its most angry, and ‘protesty’ and ‘shouty’, the folk music of those years was essentially intimate (think Phil Ochs): it spoke to the personal feelings for and dreams of social transformation in each of the audience members, and with minimal acoustic instrumentation. Those songs were usually not stadium-sized sing-along sonic-boom anthems like Freddy Mercury’s “We Will Rock You,” even though Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-changin’,” and “Blowing In The Wind” sort of became ones.

So by 1965, Bob Dylan was typecast by his folk fan base as “their” intimate public voice. But by then Dylan had gotten stoned and was now deep into making group electric music for being stoned. That was the first pop music that could burrow into your stone-cave and light up the panorama movie screen of your stone-mind with its soundtrack — for so many of us lunkhead males, and also for plenty of girls (sorry: women) as I soon learned from direct experience —: the blazing folk-rock of Dylan in 1965 and 1966: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”

The poor folkies who wanted to be aurally cuddled by their post-Beatnik second daddy folksong troubadour wailed about their Big Brother’s abandonment of them. This is where Bob Dylan is a pivotal figure in American (U.S.) broadcast popular music: his was the folk-blues phantasmagoria of proto-rap lyrical torrents cascading out on streams of blazing hot blues-rock electric music that engulfed the newly stoned minds of the emerging adolescent and young adult nymphs, and the innocent drones and satyrs scheduled as cannon fodder for the Vietnam meat-grinder. That was me.

In 1969, I lost my deferment (2S) and was classified as ready for war right then (1A), because of some screw-up where it was reported to the draft board that “my” grades were failures. For those people any boy Garcia was the same person, so I get pegged with someone else’s failure. When I called the draft board to complain about this clerical error, telling them I could send them a copy of my dean’s list letter from the school, the old lady scarecrow on the phone just said to me “once we start the process we just keep going.” Up to 1968, 50% of the Vietnam War casualties among U.S. soldiers were Blacks and Latinos, always sent out “on point” by their white-boy lieutenant platoon commanders ‘leading’ their men, from the rear, into jungle ambuscades (I heard about such things from first hand recollections by Puerto Rican veterans who survived their 1960s in Vietnam).

So I basically lost my mind, desperate to achieve my goal #2 before being done in by a failure to meet goal #3; and I kept up my studies in the hopes of being ultimately able to proceed with my career ambitions to do engineering and science in a creative way, should I survive. I eventually lucked out by getting a very high number in the draft lottery of December 1969, and so I was passed over for being inducted into the U.S. military.

And during those years of 1968 and 1969, I listened to much music designed to accompany being stoned: Dylan, Doors, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and even Crosby Stills and Nash. Janis and CSN were favorites in the girls’ dorms (dorms were segregated by sex in those days, so making an overnight stay involved careful planning and inside help to pull off, like a bank heist caper). I learned much about all this music from the young ladies — all of them far more socially aware than me, keenly informed about pop music, and all very bright — who accepted me into their group company to listen to records at night.

After 1969 I started becoming an adult, but that is another story. Last tip: put Crème de menthe into your bong instead of water, especially helpful with hashish.

<><><><><><><>