Magazine article The American Conservative

Making Classical New

Magazine article The American Conservative

Making Classical New

Article excerpt

Young musicians take an entrepreneurial approach to the canon.

Arthur Rubinstein was one of the greatest piano performers of the 20th century, renowned for his unmatchable tone and the creativity of his playing. But he was not known for technical perfection. In fact, when he recorded music, he left his mistakes in, rather than editing them out. When asked why, he answered, "I'm after the music, not after perfection."

Today's classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine." A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician's downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.

This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians' creativity: they're too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, "the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness."

Greg Sandow, a music critic, composer, and Juilliard lecturer, remembers a young violist at the conservatory who wanted to join a prestigious orchestra. She attended a music camp that taught her exactly how to play-dictating the precise amounts of seconds she should pause, directing the tiniest details of her artistic expression. She had to play within these constraints in order to please at her audition. "She was never allowed to play the way she wanted," Sandow says.

"Technique is only a vehicle through which you develop your artistry," says Joseph Polisi, president of Juilliard, in a phone interview. "If you don't communicate to your audience, you aren't presenting your art. Technical performances that are perfect could be given through a machine-performance is about human communication."

But the classical-music world has created a field in which musicians are expected to do the same things over and over, with the same tone, pitch, lilt, fingering, and pauses as the next performer. This perfectionism may make it easier to weed out applicants in search of a first-chair bassoonist, but it also means that musicians-and innovation itself-are left outside in the cold.

"It's a brutally high level of competition," says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a professional French hornist. "It's just like professional sports, it just doesn't pay as well."

This intensifying competition is in part a response to the contraction of the classical-music profession, as orchestras brave a double-whammy of dwindling funds and diminishing audiences. While there is still a market for classical music, it has increasingly become a niche market-and this reduction has taken a toll on the available supply of jobs. Thousands of applicants show up to auditions for the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Symphony, and other top orchestras, even as thousands more young musicians spill from the doors of the nation's top conservatories, diplomas and instruments in hand.

Recorded music continues to take a toll on orchestras as well: why attend a concert, when you can buy an album from iTunes or listen to it on Spotify? Live performances have become a costly and unnecessary luxury. We no longer need listen to a live orchestra to experience their music-especially since the nature of classical canon guarantees you will hear the same music, with the same tones and performance, every time. Though people will go to pop concerts to hear their favorite covers live, pop artists' performances feature light shows and fog machines, huge interactive backdrops and hashtags for twitter users. They encourage their audiences to use cellphones, to scream and clap along. …

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