In Praise of the Amateur (Part One)
A couple of weeks ago, I gave an informal talk to the Friday Morning Music Club in which I summarized some of my thoughts on the idea of "the amateur" in music. Someone asked me if I could repost them here, and I'm recapitulating them in abbreviated (bloggable) form, over a couple of posts.
I focused on the idea of amateurism not out of an urge to patronize or flatter Washington's Friday Morning Music Club (which, for those who don't know it, has been presenting concerts by dedicated non-professionals since 1886), but because I've always been interested in the role so-called amateurs have played in classical music. There was nothing condescending in the idea of an “amateur” in late 18th-century Vienna. Amateurs were simply people who loved music. They were patrons, but also performers and composers: Ignaz von Beecke, a military man who was one of the leading pianists of Mozart’s day; Louis Ferdinand, the beloved Prussian prince who may have been the "hero" of Beethoven’s "Eroica" symphony and who was himself an impressive composer. Amateurs, or dilettantes – that word wasn’t pejorative either – founded the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, the group that established the hallowed Musikverein, one of the leading concert halls in the world. And a composer like Franz Schubert was in a sense an amateur: most of his works were heard in informal gatherings of friends.
I think most of us who love music are sorry that the general experience of it has evolved (or devolved) from active to passive. Where once the audience bought piano arrangements and played chamber music at home, fans now are simply listeners, whether in the concert hall or at home on CD. And the term amateur has changed correspondingly. Now, it tends to imply a lack of seriousness.
And music has become a very serious business. Professionals have to work hard, for years and years, and don't you forget it. Concert programs have become more and more earnest, thorny, presenting great masterworks in performances that are supposed to be transcendent (if you believe orchestra’s marketing brochures). Henry Fogel, who used to run the Chicago Symphony and then the League of American Orchestras, wrote an interesting article in Symphony Magazine a couple of years ago about how orchestra programming has gotten more serious: the overtures and Strauss waltzes and bonbons that used to feature on regular concerts has pretty much been relegated to summer festivals and pops concerts and lumped together as "fluff." Some of that fluff is a lot of fun, though, and is perhaps part of a balanced musical diet. (Henry sums up his view here, in a blog post criticizing another aspect of music's increased seriousness: the tacit prohibition on between-movements applause.)
(read more after the jump)
And since music is a serious business, musicians have become more serious. I think a sense of fun is missing in a lot of professional performances. Our paradigm has become the fiercely focused conductor: Lorin Maazel or Herbert von Karajan, rather than Bruno Walter (who had a lilt and a love in everything he did). Or the high-minded soloist: our stars today are the violinist Christian Tetzlaff or the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, both players I deeply admire, both fiercely serious in their approach. If any of you heard Leonidas Kavakos play the Mendelssohn concerto with the NSO in April, so deadly earnest it was almost deflated, you’ll know what I mean.
When I see videos of performers from the 1940s and 1950s, I am so often struck by a spark in the playing that I think is frequently missing today. There's a video of a television gala from the 1950s that includes Isaac Stern playing the Mendelssohn concerto; I wasn't a huge Stern fan until I heard that performance, which is so filled with joy and delight that it's absolutely irresistible. Similarly, the film “Carnegie Hall” that I blogged about a few weeks ago offers performances by Walter, Artur Rubinstein, Rise Stevens, Ezio Pinza, Jascha Heifetz, and many more: and most of these performances have a spark, a kind of twinkle in the eye, a sense that music is fun and a delight. Pinza is flirting not just with the women around him, but with the audience; Rubinstein is reveling in the sheer showmanship of what he's doing. Unserious, perhaps; but it also conveys a sense of love, even, I'd argue, to someone who's new to classical music. And it's a quality I hear in a lot of old recordings. Caruso was an amateur. Bjorling was an amateur. It sounds like they love what they're doing.
I’d love to rediscover and reinstate the original sense of amateur: someone who loves music enough to care about making it, and make you care about making it. So often in the world of professional concerts we are presented with hard polished surfaces, music as a fait accompli, a distant object that we are meant to admire instead of a living thing with which we are meant to interact. It’s the difference between worshipping a film star on screen and having a relationship with a real person. We need to find more of the latter kind of love in our musical life.
[Part Two: The Critic as Amateur, tomorrow.]
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