Amid all the fretting about classical music's future, some worries about its past

Day after day, someone somewhere discusses the state of classical music, typically with a degree of concern about its long-term survivability. This has been going on for ages, of course, but it has generated something of a cottage industry in recent years.

Trepidation about the years ahead is especially prevalent and understandable right now, thanks to such things as the testy contract negotiations going on at the Metropolitan Opera and the recent labor/management battles at the Minnesota Orchestra.

This week came news that the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera cannot afford to have a fall season; a spring season is no sure thing for them, either. Closer to home, Baltimore Lyric Opera has cut back to one production for the coming season, all the budget will allow.

This sort of news is very troubling, to be sure. Still, for all of the dire omens about the future of classical music, I find myself more worried about its past, which seems to be in much greater danger.

I don't mean that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Puccini, Mahler, Strauss and the rest of the gang are going to decompose their way right out of earshot. The monumental cornerstones of classical music will always stand, capable of sustaining the genre for many a generation to come. New composers will continue to emerge, adding to the repertoire. Music students will continue to turn into professionals.   

It may well be, however, that fewer and fewer people will appreciate classical music, just as there will doubtless be fewer and fewer people who crave poetry (regardless of all those states boasting poet laureates) or who truly savor jazz (talk about an endangered art form). But great art will endure as long as enough human beings have a vestige of intelligence and taste – OK, given the state of the world these days, that might be a finite proposition after all.  

That said, a whole lot more than the continuation of concerts and operas is at stake. The part of the past that is especially slipping from us has to do with the art of interpretation. Today, you tend to hear more talk about what orchestras are playing, not how; more about what operas are being staged and what they look like, not how they are being sung.

I don't think there's nearly enough attention paid by current musicians and audiences to the many ways that music used to be played and felt, how differently it communicated – and how much more grippingly it could be performed today.

It's scary to think that crops of music conservatory grads (and audiences, of course) might have no connection of any kind to such names as Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Barbirolli; or Cortot, Schnabel, Gieseking, Moiseiwitsch, Bolet; or Piatigorsky, Casals, Kreisler, Szigeti; McCormack, Farrar, Melba, Schumann-Heink, Ponselle, Muzio, Tauber (or even Bergonzi, whose death last month was one more reminder of days when vocal artistry seemed far more plentiful).

The litany of giants who once roamed the music world, some as recently as three or four decades ago, is very long. The number of people who still care about them, take the time to dig up their recorded legacy – that list, I fear, is much shorter.

The irony is it is easier and cheaper than ever to explore that legacy. Time was when you had to invest in recordings and stereo equipment (remember stereo equipment?), or visit a very well-stocked library, if you wanted to hear classical golden oldies.

In the age of YouTube, everything, it seems, is available at the click of a mouse and easy to hear through the most basic computer speaker or cheapest ear buds -- hardly ideal, sonically speaking, but today's generation seems content with that. (I picked the YouTube clip that goes with this blog post because it's a great two-fer: McCormack and Kriesler on the same recording.) 

A few years ago, after longtime friend, recording producer and mega-record collector Julian Kreeger and I gave a talk to piano students at the University of Maryland, we heard that some of them formed a little group that gathered to listen to old stuff -- they called themselves the Dead Pianists Society. Wouldn't it be great if music students everywhere did that sort of thing? Dead Composers Society, Dead Singers Society. A good time would be had by all. 

Making the effort to investigate and learn from revered artists of the past is not a path to imitation. I don't expect those greats to be replicated; part of their value is their irreplaceability. But something of what they can teach us about phrasing and dynamics, for example, surely is worth studying and absorbing today and tomorrow and the day after. 

To pick one little example, consider the overly familiar aria "La donna e mobile." Time was when tenors would bend the tempo a little in each verse, and/or start the second verse softly for contrast. In the case of Gigli and Fleta, you also got the treat of hearing a couple tones filed down to a golden thread.

Hearing vintage accounts makes you realize how much we're missing today, when singers routinely charge through the whole piece at one volume, one speed.

After you experience how singers and instrumentalists alike once applied rubato, legato and portamento to exquisite poetic effect, you cannot help but wonder what happened to such personality and why we rarely enjoy anything remotely like that now. After you experience conductors who knew how to make every note spring to life, a lot of what we get today can seem awfully pale.

Sometimes, those venerable, olden day performers were not note-perfect, but that didn't detract from the power and beauty of how they communicated.

When people lament the prospects for classical music, one of the inevitable complaints (aside from the dreadful shortage of genuine music education in the school systems) is that it is boring and stuffy. So we get attempts to put orchestra musicians into a more contemporary wardrobe, add mood lighting to concerts (which was first tried way back in the past), provide martinis in the lobby, etc.

I suggest that the biggest cure for boredom is more stimulating, individualistic music-making and more surprising programs (in my nuttier moods, I envision audiences being told only most of what will be on a concert -- the box-office-safe parts -- so the remainder could be a surprise).

As for the music-making, I've often said that music is a kind of perpetually wet clay, waiting to be molded; you can shape it and carve your name on it, but it never gets so calcified that another musician can't smooth it out and re-shape it all over again in a different way.

If more musicians magically threw off whatever mental straight jackets they have about interpretation and embraced the kind of freedom that can be found in recorded souvenirs of the past, maybe every concert would startle and engage, instead of just once in a blue moon.

I know there are many things about the past we would never want to emulate (tastes sometimes change for the better), but that still leaves a lot worth being remembered, considered and discussed, helping to open up minds and ears in new ways.

As for showcasing music, if programs weren't so often constricted to the tired overture-concerto-symphony syndrome, maybe concert halls would perk up a lot more. The past offers some intriguing suggestions about this, too.

Time was when conductors felt that audiences were at their most alert and attentive at the beginning of a concert, not after intermission. A pretty sensible observation that still holds up, wouldn't you say (especially given all those lobby bars now)?

Here are some examples of Mahler's programming for his orchestras in Vienna and New York:

Brahms' Third on the first half; tone poem by Dvorak, overture by Beethoven on the second. Mahler's Fourth to start; a Liszt concerto, assorted arias and piano pieces, and Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" to close.  For the first half, a Bach suite, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3; for the second half, Prelude and "Liebestod," "Bartered Bride" Overture.

Today, any thing like that would be considered radical, if not insane. I think it would be cool. And if yesteryear's public had no problem with such ordering, how do we know today's wouldn’t find it a refreshing jolt?

The classical music world could use a major new appreciation for how music was presented back when the art form supposedly had firmer standing. Whether it was so much better off is debatable, of course, but the woe-is-us chorus inevitably suggests we are worse off now, so we might as well dig more into the what-where-how-and-why of previous eras.

Above all, the classical music world could benefit from more widespread explorations into artists of the past who found myriad ways to turn the black-and-white of a score into something incredibly colorful.

Almost every time I dig out some old recording, I get a surprise -- a phrase here, a dynamic shift there; an unexpected ritardando that changes the whole picture; an elongated, silent pause that makes the tension rise like crazy. We sure could use encounters with such individualistic touches on a regular basis now.

"The past is a foreign country," L.P. Hartley wrote. "They do things differently there." I think it would be useful for today's classical music hand-wringers to spend just a little less time dreaming up all those big bright new ideas that will secure the future, and focus a little more on those long-ago days when musicians did things differently -- and so indelibly.

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