I was born a motivation

On the job:

National Symphony Orchestra considers the one and the many (Washington Post, February 7, 2020)

(Plus one I forgot to link to last week:

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020))

Critic-at-large Helena B. was my date for this last NSO concert. The combination of the Grieg Lyric Suite and the Dvořák Cello Concerto drained her six-year-old’s reserve of patience. But then she was entranced by the Nielsen 4th. The lesson for anyone out there programming a kid’s concert: kettledrums, my friend. Kettledrums.

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RIP Mirella Freni. Here’s a screenshot from a 1988 production of La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera, with Freni as Mimi and—who else?—Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo.

If you look carefully, you can see Pavarotti wielding a spoon and tucking into a dish of something behind that wine bottle. According to stagehands, that was a scoop of ice cream that Pavarotti had suggested be served to Freni as part of the Bohemians’ Cafe Momus repast—which Pavarotti then, every night, hijacked for himself. I, for one, am happy that the look on her face at that moment was preserved for posterity.

* * *

The cultural anemometer has been predicting another reckoning with the European classical canon at the center of conservatory musical education, best summed up by Doug Shadle’s call to “Cancel the 19th Century.” One could also cite Andrea Moore’s proposed moratorium on Beethoven performances for his 250th-anniversary year. Given how much iconoclasm has been a part of the warp and weft of music history, I’m always at least open to suggestion about this sort of thing. (Of course, now I’m working on both an article and a lecture on Beethoven. Life comes at you fast.)

Back when I was a theory teacher, I always made it a point to tell students that they weren’t learning 18th- and 19th-century common-practice European musical techniques because that music was somehow better than anything else, but rather because that practice was a) easy to systematize, thus b) easy to teach, thus c) a pretty efficient way to jumpstart your brain into making connections between hearing music, reading music, and playing music.

Still, I would hardly insist that the classical music is the only common practice that can get you from point a) to point c). But there is one possible advantage of traditional classical conservatory-style training that I think about quite a bit. I was reminded of it by this passage, from Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds’ history of glam rock:

Every once shockingly ‘real’ form of expression eventually becomes a set of mannerisms, emptied out by repetition and the passage of time. This process would play out in music time and time again: rock’n’roll, punk, hip hop—each became a code replicable by inauthentic outsiders, a tradition that outlived its original function or context.

One of the things I have always loved about classical music—even when, career-wise, it wasn’t loving me back—is how it all seems to skip straight past that “real” phase and straight into the mannerist one. The bulk of the canon, after all, pre-dates the whole idea of authenticity. Styles change, but the styles are all and to a large extent purposefully manufactured. There is the score and its realization—which is to say, there is the code, and the replication of the code.

On the one hand, it’s dangerous—empty repetition and all. But, on the other hand, it’s liberating. In theory, we all can make equally strong claims on the tradition, simply because we’re all strangers to it. The original function or context becomes something to be lovingly recreated, creatively mutated, or cheerfully ignored. And if that freedom is in tension with a rigid canon of repertoire and training, well, whose fault is that? One thing at the core of the problems with conservatory training, its brittleness and abuse, might be the inappropriate application and exploitation of authenticity as an existential and moral quality, a quality that’s foreign to so much of the music as it was made and originally performed. The relevant patterns of power are intertwined with assertions of that authenticity; sweeping it away would be a fair amount of work. But a first step toward reforming music education would be to admit that, at this point in history, we’re all inauthentic outsiders to the classical tradition. A second step would be to recognize that as the virtue that it is.

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