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?
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