Sunday, February 20, 2011


This month is my one moment of respite in the middle of a blessedly busy and pressure-packed season, and I've done my best to make the most of this downtime, trying to rest, relax, and recharge. As part of my effort to recharge my creative batteries, I've tried to take advantage of this opportunity to actually sit in the audience and remind myself what it is to be on the flip side of the stage, so to speak. Having the chance to watch my colleagues and heroes strut their stuff has been inspiring. They have rekindled the fires in my soul and reminded me how great a privilege it is for us to do what we do, and the power of live performance.

The Friday before last, I was in awe as I looked around at Carnegie Hall's Stern-Perelman Auditorium, which was so packed full and oversold with Mitsuko Uchida fans that they added chairs on stage, in order to fit people into the hall. What heartened me the most was how few people I recognized as "industry" folk – this audience was simply full of music-lovers who just wanted to see Mitsuko. I watched as the father next to me sat with his daughters, waving his hand along with the music, silently showing his daughters the parts that he found most magical. I listened with a big smile on my face as I heard the great, superhuman care with which Mitsuko shaped each phrase, daring herself to play so intimately and quietly at times that she pulled the 3000 of us to the edges of our plush seats simply with the tips of her fingers.

The next night, I went to the Metropolitan Opera to catch the opening night performance of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride. It turned out to Placido Domingo's 771st performance at the Met - apparently just one of the over 3500 performances he has given over his lifetime. I sat in the audience as I watched this septuagenarian do a fight scene, struggle with being shackled in chains on stage, and sing with such beauty and technical brilliance that I found my heart racing as I listened to him sing. I marveled not only at the fact that he was still doing all of this at the age of 70, but doing it with more commitment, style, emotion and beauty than most 30 year olds I know. I was keenly aware that I was in the presence of a true master.

Then last Tuesday night I attended Joyce DiDonato's recital with pianist David Zobel at the Kennedy Center. Joyce’s performance embodied everything a great, legendary artist is capable of: she wowed us with her technical virtuosity, she transported us with the extremes of her expressive capabilities, and she moved our hearts and souls with her openness and vulnerability. I (along with the rest of the audience) happily jumped to my feet at the end of the recital, after being riveted song, after song, amazed at how 2 hours could fly by so quickly.

It was ironic to me then, to read this blog post by the Kennedy Center's president at the Huffington Post on the way home from DC. After attending a concert at his hall where I felt I witnessed classical artistry at it's most excellent, high level of mastery and communicative and emotional import, I was stunned to read the following as his hypothesized reason for the "troubled" state of the arts today:

"It is no surprise to most of us that the arts are in a parlous state. But contrary to popular belief, it isn't the fault of unions, the absence of arts education in our schools, the lack of involvement by boards, or even a dearth of arts management training.

The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created.”

Mr. Kaiser went on to say:

“I know that I am risking the wrath of the entire arts community, and I know I am also at risk of sounding like the classic old-timer ("When I was a young man... "). But when I was a young man we had Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. And I am just mentioning a few of the astonishing dance artists working in the 1950s and 1960s. We also had Bernstein and Rodgers and Stravinsky and Rubinstein and Horowitz and Tennessee Williams and...

True, we still have among us a few of the greats -- Paul Taylor, Stephen Sondheim, etc. -- who have been producing great art for many decades. But these geniuses cannot be the vanguard for a still young century. And while we do have some amazing younger talents -- Mark Morris, Yo-Yo Ma and Alexei Ratmansky among them -- we need more. Where are the new brilliant voices that astonish, educate and entertain us?”

I don’t know…but it seems to me that we have many voices out there now astonishing, educating, and entertaining us in the classical world. I mean, what about John Adams, Steven Stucky, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Mason Bates, Gabriela Lena Frank, Joyce Didonato, Mitsuko Uchida, Susan Graham, David Daniels, Juan Diego Florez, Joshua Bell, Jonathan Biss, Hilary Hahn, Jeremy Denk, Yuja Wang, Eighth Blackbird, Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, Riccardo Muti, David Robertson…just to name a few?

Part of what was so inspiring about going to all of these performances over the last few days was that it demonstrated to me not only that audiences are willing to be engaged and want to experience classical music, but that great music-making is happening all over the place.

It just seems to me that if I can see three performances of the highest quality in only five days, the quantity of artistic excellence is clearly not the reason for the arts’ “parlous state”.


Janet said...

Judging from the examples he's chosen, I believe he is making a distinction between creators and performing artists.

Absolutely, as you show, we have among us today as many marvellous and inspiring performers as we ever had (at least in music--I don't know about ballet, which seems to be his main focus). But I think the question he's raising is, do we have composers (or choreographers) who excite people as much as, say, Stravinsky did in his time?

JR said...

I have to agree with Nick. In just this past week, I too saw Joyce DiDonato in DC, and I saw Juan Diego Florez in recital, attended a salon with new composer Tom Cippullo, and I myself participated in a gorgeous Tenebrae program at the National Cathedral. In the same week, Hilary Hahn gave a stunning performance here. Quality of performance is not the issue. The best are still great.

Likewise many hated Stravinsky in his time. His first performance of Les Noces actually caused a riot. Granted that would be exciting, but it is true that composers are rarely appreciated in their lifetime. Look at Bach, the greatest ever (IMHO).

I think part of the problem is how we talk about the arts. We don't sell it the way would would some other fabulous thing. Compare the way we would glow to friends about a new restaurant that had the most amazing dish to what we would say, if we said anything at all, about a concert performance. Granted the concert is over. The dish is being served every night. But the ephemeral nature of our art should make it all the more precious were we to sell it that way. Just a thought.