On his blog, Greg Sandow wrote: “This week I’m flying out to visit the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, which, of course, is one of the biggest and most important conservatories in the US.
I’ll be the guest of their Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development. I’ll meet with the people who run it, see what they’re doing. And I’ll have other meetings with faculty and administration. … I’ll also attend performances, most notably — since the school is famous for its opera department — a production of Handel’s ‘Rodelinda.’”
Among Sandow’s other doings while here in Bloomington this past week was “a talk on the future of classical music.” I attended that event. It proved informative and provocative.
And just who is Greg Sandow?
He is a composer with four operas to his credit, including “Frankenstein.” He is a highly productive writer on music, both classical and pop, and he’s been an influential critic, too. Sandow’s byline has appeared in the Village Voice, New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Opera News and Entertainment Weekly. He’s done consulting. He now teaches at the Juilliard School and provides blogs about the future of classical music on the ArtsJournal.com website. His bio also notes he’s written extensively about unidentified flying objects.
Sandow’s major efforts these days, however, concern the future of classical music; it’s the subject of a graduate course he teaches at Juilliard and, as noted above, was the reason for his visit to IU.
From what I heard lecturer Sandow say, he believes classical music has a future. What gets in the way, he argues, are dusty traditions and an inflexibility stemming from blind loyalty to those traditions. He played a tenor aria from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” one that is followed by a famous love duet. The tenor: Ivan Kozlovsky, Ukrainian-born, a favorite of Stalin, and longtime star at the Bolshoi in Moscow.
Kozlovsky sings beautifully, lyrically, effortlessly but holds on to the high notes, a habit of his. Sandow asked: “Would we in the West tolerate those long high notes?” Probably not, thanks to most present-day conductors, but fans in Soviet Russia went wild hearing their beloved tenor show off.
Later in his lecture, Sandow turned to another tenor, Franco Corelli, who held on and on and on to the final phrase of “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars shone”), Cavaradossi’s pre-death aria longing for his beloved Tosca in Puccini’s opera.
Audience response on that recording came as an explosion of bravos, an acknowledgement of a magnificent voice and a tenor’s decision to use rhythmic liberties for a thrilling effect. There were young people in that audience, young people who — it is often claimed — reject classical music. These obviously didn’t. Fans accept things special, daring, different, unexpected. Practitioners of the classics, Sandow was arguing, need to consider more dangerous performance options to award listeners with an element of surprise.
On the other hand, following a listen to a dose of classic chamber music, Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio as played by violinist Jacques Thibaud, pianist Alfred Cortot and cellist Pablo Casals, one sensed the winning trait was just magnificence and honesty of performance tied to music artists don’t or shouldn’t interpretively distort for effect. And, Sandow pointed out, following a recorded performance by Patricia Kopatchinskaya and the ensemble Musica Aeterna of the third movement from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, that when a masterpiece is played with such brilliance, no matter who the audience, the reaction will be “Wow!”
Using Bob Dylan’s pop anthem, “Duquesne Whistle,” Sandow illustrated another lesson: message. For today’s younger fans of music, art with something to say has become a critical factor: offer a strong message set to music that fits. While for those of us who’ve been around for a multitude of years, the beauty in a piece of music added to beauty of performance can be sufficient to make us weep or smile or turn angry or be inspired, that’s less likely a newcomer’s reaction.
Even just seeing a cellist amidst an orchestra’s body of cellists smiling through a passage, believe me, can strike a chord and bring a smile; it happened to me at the University Orchestra concert a week ago. Even a gorgeous ending, again, believe me, can bring tears to the eyes. “How can anything be so beautiful?” I’ll ask myself and weep.
Younger fans often require more to become convinced that a musical work outside the boundaries of pop can be important, can be emotionally entangling. But that is what’s required for classical music to stay around and prosper with broader acceptance. “Classical music won’t die,” Greg Sandow predicts, “but it will be reborn, reconnecting with our larger cultural life to become a truly contemporary art.
“That will bring great changes,” Sandow continues, “including — and I think this is crucial — much less emphasis on our old, beloved masterworks, which now lie at the heart of our repertoire. Is that a drastic change? I’m sure it will be for some of us. But classical music can’t connect with the current world if it is lost in the past. Once we do reconnect, I think we’ll find we’ve been missing a lot. We’ll explode with new life, becoming not just more relevant but also more vital, more diverse, and more deeply artistic.”
Sandow’s “we” refers, I think, to those not yet committed, to those who dismiss the importance of the classics. I think the “we” also refers to those of us already deeply committed to the classics but who resist change and must come to accept it, lest we lose what we so love.
Every kind of “we” is necessary, advises composer/critic/writer/teacher Greg Sandow, for the best of all possible future for classical music. He’s betting that it will live. I’m hoping it will.
In the meantime, happy birthday, happy 90th, to soprano Leontyne Price! Her birthday was this past Friday. Her “classical” artistry fits past, present and future.
Contact Peter Jacobi at email@example.com.