Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Classics and the political class

The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette worries that President Obama "spoke for a majority of his generation when he expressed his concerns, before the [White House] classical music event in November, about knowing when to clap" – reinforcing the notion that classical music is "a duty more than a pleasure: good for us, but a little dull":


Midgette writes that "the strongest message the White House could send to our nation about classical music is that it’s actually enjoyable. . . . There’s no better way to send a signal about the benefits of classical music than to show Obama having fun listening to it."

Hmm. Judging by opinion polls, I suspect that somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the U.S. population would be inclined to dislike anything that this president was seen to enjoy. Nevertheless . . .

Midgette imagines a variety of performances of American art-music, from Stephen Foster songs to George Crumb’s Vietnam War meditation "Black Angels." (One of her suggestions is a White House engagement for eighth blackbird playing Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, which was introduced in 2008 at the University of Richmond and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009.)

Commendable and appropriate as such concerts might be, I wonder whether they would segue with "having fun listening" – especially when you consider the guests typically invited to cultural events at the White House. The only such affair I’ve witnessed was a half-hour musicale of fairly undemanding pieces by Mozart and Haydn, squirmed through by an audience of politicians and big donors. Trying to imagine how those folks would have reacted to something like the Reich sextet, "fun" doesn’t come to mind, except maybe the perverse fun of Schadenfreude to be had by various outsider-onlookers.

As the late R.W. Apple noted in a 1998 essay in The New York Times . . .


. . . most high-level Washington political figures are high-culture illiterates, especially when it comes to music. (The last U.S. president who had more than a passing familiarity with classical music was Richard Nixon.) In the 12 years since Apple wrote that piece, political Washington has become an even more attention-deficit-disordered culture in which substance is condensed/warped into slogans and sound-bites. What makes these people successful makes them unresponsive to ambiguities and abstract ideas worked out at length. (Obama is said to be an exception, but his "professorial" inclination is also said to be a political weakness.)

The best way – maybe the only way – to get members of the political class to respond more than dutifully to classical music is to give them sensation and spectacle, virtuosity and theatricality. The White House is not an ideal venue – the East Room is not a theater; and the greatest classical repertory, old or new, is not geared to limited attention spans. But there are possibilities.

Midgette’s suggestion of engaging a major opera singer, such as Plácido Domingo, for a program of arias, could be enjoyable to a White House audience. (Political types like to be seen with celebrities, even when they don’t respond to what makes the celebrities celebrated.)

In the realm of contemporary art-music, I would go for works that are either theatrical (for eighth blackbird playing George Crumb, make it "Voice of the Whale") or highly physical (for Steve Reich, make it one of his drum works).

The most promising option, though, is the solo virtuoso playing finger-busting showpieces. To cite two examples from my recent concert-going experience, I can easily imagine pianist Yuja Wang playing Ravel’s "La Valse" and Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca," or violinist Gil Shaham playing Sarasate’s "Zigeunerweisen" and "Carmen" Fantasy, and making a White House crowd visibly enjoy the experience.