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Because you're special

There's a new Arts Journal blogger in town: the encyclopedically knowledgeable Joseph Horowitz, co-founder of Washington’s own Post-Classical Ensemble, has started a blog, The Unanswered Question (and writes compellingly, in his first post, about some of the changes in the arts-journalism landscape that have led him to overcome his initial resistance to the form). Welcome.

* * *

Meanwhile, over at Life’s a Pitch, there’s a discussion going on between a performer, a journalist, a presenter, and a manager (sounds like the set-up for a joke) about what makes a performance or artist “special,” and stand out from the crowd. (Life’s a Pitch is a blog about marketing the arts, so those who find the idea of “marketing” hopelessly venal should not even bother to read. But this is an important question, and the pianist Jonathan Biss, one of the least gimmicky artists around, is one of the debaters.)

I don’t think anyone in this discussion argues that the gimmick thing is annoying: the idea that a performer needs to have some kind of musical or extra-musical hook to make audiences interested in him/her. (Helene Grimaud loves wolves! Susan Graham hangs out in cigar bars! Richard Stoltzman is a pastry chef! So-and-so just overcame cancer! I’ve gotten all of these pitches at one time or another.)

The real point is the music (as Biss notes). A performer brings a particular point of view to the music, and this is what is worthy of interest. But there are many performers, playing, often, the same music, and struggling to assert their points of view. For every Maurizio Pollini or Radu Lupu or Murray Perahia -- established artists with a distinct perspective -- there are dozens of younger artists straining to be individual and unique and show how much the music means to him/her, as if the question of establishing a persona were one more hurdle on the road to a career. And there are also dozens of potential audience members who don't know Pollini from Penderecki, but who might be induced to buy a ticket, and even develop an interest, if they did. This is how the question of “special” -- and gimmicks -- comes up in the first place.
(read more after the jump)

My own belief is that a performance is special when the performer brings a point of view and a particular take on the music, be it the interpretation of an opera role or a Beethoven sonata. I have no objection to this being backed up by spoken comments, which I abhor when they’re done badly or by rote (“Chopin wrote this piece when he was 24” adds nothing to my experience), but can sometimes be an enhancement if done honestly. (“Playing this music for me is like swimming through the ocean; it carries me along” makes me at least mildly curious to hear how the young pianist plays that music. I also think it helps establish an interest among people who don't know the music at all, and aren't sure why they should care.)

I do think it’s unfortunate, though, when there’s no sense of a person behind the playing. Classical music can suffer from a sense of entitlement: there’s an idea that the music is so great it’s enough just to play it, and everyone should be in awe. Yes: the music is that great. That’s precisely why the performer has to work so hard to delve into it, to bring it across, to make it more than merely notes executed well. (The same thing, incidentally, holds true of reviews: in an ideal world they should be more than merely obedient reports.) As for the extra-musical aspect: historically, audiences have always been hugely interested in the figure of the performer on a personal level. To say that this aspect should be off-limits, or is not relevant, is to draw an artificial boundary.

But how far, in our age of media saturation, do you go? Are people in Washington this month going to be more likely to go hear Jeremy Denk if they read his blog (they should!), or Augustin Hadelich if they know he was badly burned in a house fire when he was in his teens, or Anne Schwanewilms if they know that she was involved in the story of Deborah Voigt and the little black dress? Even more to the point, for marketers: How do you distinguish Garrick Ohlsson from Emanuel Ax in the season brochure in a way that would help a first-time ticket buyer to understand which of the two he might rather hear? (That question is usually answered, in practice, with the egregious overuse of terms like “great,” or “leading pianist of his generation.”)

To some classical fans, these questions are Philistine. To people trying to put on concerts and get people to come to them, they're essential. What are your thoughts on what makes a performer "special," and how should the people who present classical music deal with this issue?

By Anne Midgette  |  January 21, 2010; 11:24 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , random musings  
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Interesting post that brings forth two thoughts:
1) People come to concerts for different reasons. For most, it's the music and the performer. However, for some the hook of a non-musical story may be enough to encourage them to check out a person or group. Moreover, your concept of a "great" pianist and mine may be dramatically different.
2) Your dig about music notes was uncalled for. Not everyone reads the program notes, ahead of time or at the concert. Not everyone attends the preconcert lecture. For the non-initiated, the idea that Chopin was JUST 24 when he wrote a particular piece might, indeed, be very interesting. Of course, all of this can be overdone. However, hearing someone say that “Playing this music for me is like swimming through the ocean; it carries me along” may, in fact, make it more difficult for someone to listen to the music. Delivering verbal notes is an art form and too-few artists practice it enough.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | January 21, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I hate to disagree with Anne, whom I wholeheartedly admire, but knowing that Chopin was 24 is of some relevance to one's musical culture, whereas knowing that the critic feels like he is swimming in the ocean when hearing the music may be of interest to his therapist, but not really for the first time listener. (I can just picture a whole concert hall full of people making rowing motions as they listen to the Barcarole, for example, because they think that's what sophisticated listeners are supposed to do.)

In any case, program notes tend to be altogether rather uninformative, especially when describing the personnel, along the lines of "Igor Klutz (Head Usher, Orchestra) has a degree in Ushering from East Podunk College. He was Balcony Usher at the Slobowia Festival, Assistant Second Tier Program Handout Specialist in Strasbourg, Salzburg, and Pittsburgh, and has been Principal Orchestra Usher at the Kennedy Center since winning the Domingo-Cafritz Young Ushers award at the Pagliacci restaurant in 1999."

I envision the paradigm of a proper relationship between music, musicians, and listeners to be a love affair. It won't work if it's sold and it won't work if one party wants it much more than another. If music providers have to hustle to find customers, there is too much music on offer. Better packaging may sell more tickets to first time users, but there aren't going to be many repeat sales unless the customers know what they're supposed to do! That's what an education is supposed to provide. Unfortunately, that is what the public lacks most.

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 21, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Great topic, Anne. Thanks for drawing attention to the forum on Life's a Pitch - I can't wait to catch up on the posts tonight.

"But how far, in our age of media saturation, do you go? Are people in Washington this month going to be more likely to go hear Jeremy Denk if they read his blog (they should!), or Augustin Hadelich if they know he was badly burned in a house fire when he was in his teens, or Anne Schwanewilms if they know that she was involved in the story of Deborah Voigt and the little black dress?"

The fact is (I know it's gauche to point it out - apologies), concerts that receive press coverage are better attended. The job of marketers is to get people in the door to hear wonderful musicians, by any means possible.

So the question is isn't "Will Jane Concertgoer be more likely to buy a ticket if..." It is "Will Jane Journalist be more likely to write about this artist if..." I'm afraid that, as newspapers around the country continue to fire dedicated arts writers, the answer is more and more "yes."

How far do you go? As far as it takes to get someone to take notice. The gimmick gets the story, which gets butts in seats. Aftwards, hopefully, it will have been all about that beautiful musical experience.

Posted by: sdeec | January 21, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Establishing how special an artist is seems to be necessary to attract new audiences into concert halls. People who already love and appreciate classical music do not need attracting - music lovers follow what is going on and know performers from recordings and reviews. For this audience extra-musical stories can be fun and fodder for dinner conversation, but they are not necessary. It may be interesting that Helene Grimaud loves wolves, but it’s her playing rather than wolf-related activities that cause people to listen to her performances. It would be greatly amusing to find out that Jonathan Biss practices skate-boarding between recording sessions of Schubert sonatas, or that he loves crocodiles and works towards making the public appreciate this incredible animal, but such “specialness” would not make anybody throw out their Schnabel and Richter recordings to make space for Biss.

Presenting performers as special human beings rather than special musicians is done in order to attract people who are not actually interested in classical music. The problem is that even if people show up to listen to these “special people”, will they stay and come back for more? No amount of virtue, cuteness or spiciness can make indifferent newbies sit through the Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven quartets or Parsifal, even if the performers support charities, adopt orphans, trek the Himalaya, collect stamps, converted to Buddhism last week, etc. Music must have a performer involved in music and an audience who is actually listening to music, not simply chasing interesting stage personalities. Grigory Sokolov is a great example of a musician who does not talk to the audience, does not reveal any details of his personal life, does not wear designer clothes, and yet the audiences seem riveted and he acknowledges them simply by playing encores.

Posted by: Anna_Lieberson | January 21, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

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