Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Classical music: are you a beta tester, or beta blocker?

Alan Kozin forwards an interesting concept in a recent New York Times piece. It examines the tug-of-war between the needs of composers and performers to present new works, and the audiences' desire to remain with the tried-and-true.

Most of the complaints I get during my show, "Gamut," have to do with "modern" works. Why can't I play more beautiful music I'm asked. Well, I put that word modern in quotes because some of the offending works were written as far back as 1930 -- often making them older than the listener calling in! But the other part if it is that the judgement of a work's beauty is something that evolves over time.

Many people thought Wagner virtually unlistenable when his operas were first staged -- yet his "Ride of the Valkryies" have become part of our common musical culture. Ditto with Beethoven, who pushed the boundries of classical music. Now his symphonies and string quartets are considered masterpieces, but contemporary audiences thought they were just a mess.

And that's Kozin's point. All of those tried-and-true works had to be premiered. And sometimes they needed a champion to keep them before the public until the audiences grasped what was going on with the works. As Kozin writes:
Listeners who dislike new music, either because they disdain contemporary musical languages or because they simply want to hear what they already know and love, might argue that musicians should do this sifting on their own and perform only the works that they can say, hand on heart, are masterpieces. And that sounds reasonable, to a point. But where new works are concerned, musicians are, to borrow a term from the computer world, beta testers. The problem is that in music, beta testing necessarily involves listeners as well.
So you'll still hear the unfamiliar on "Gamut," (and a lot of our other classical music shows) for a reason. Because this is music that needs to be heard. And we value your feedback, because that's an important part of being a beta tester -- pointing out what works and what doesn't with the item being tested.

But don't ask us to stick with the same-old-same-old. As great as the basic repertoire is (and there's a reason why those works achieved that status), there's always room for one more on that Olympian peak. And the only way to discover those works is by exploring. As Kozin points out:
If the great masterpieces of the canon were determined entirely by the opinions of the musicians and listeners who first played them and heard them, J.C. Bach would be far more beloved than his father, Johann Sebastian. Salieri would be the star and Mozart the footnote, and Hummel would be the great icon of the early 19th century.
 (Although, come to think of it, we air J.C. Bach, Salieri, and Hummel with some frequency, too.)

In any event, I'll continue to air music of this era (as well as that of the past), in search of that next new masterwork. And be sure to call into the station when you think you've heard it!

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