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Corwin Slack

Is there still such a thing as better?

October 7, 2013 at 7:27 PM

I have been reflecting a lot on the state of the arts in America. The situation with the Minnesota Orchestra is quite tragic and my normal anti-union sympathies are very softened. I do think that a public institution is being wrecked by some stupid managers. Honesty and transparency is always the best policy and management of the MO has been very opaque.

But the problem goes way beyond management and union relations. If the Minnesota Orchestra were the "it" thing in Minneapolis-St. Paul would this fight even be happening? I don't think so. There are lots of reasons for the decline of the classical arts in America but I want to address just one.

How many of us think that classical music is the best music? Or do you think of it as good music but one of many good kinds of music, including, pop. rock, jazz, gospel, R&B, rap etc.?

I remember when Time Magazine (a dying medium) only reviewed classical music in its music section. There were articles about other kinds of music but performances and records in those genres were not reviewed. It changed at the end of the sixties. Everything was good. Now we get critiques of "muscular riffs" and "wailing trumpets". To me it is like reviewing a comic book as literature. But here we are. Everything is good which really means nothing is good. Blue ribbons for everything.

I am concerned that we no longer think of classical music as partaking of and deriving its power from fundamental values of western civilization. Without that mindset can we expect art to elevate us to something better?

Is there still such a thing as better?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 1:56 AM
Corwin, I think this is an important topic. When news outlets seriously review a five-chord thrash song as if it's got the same worth as an elegant and thoughtful piece written by a musically educated composer and played by a practiced musician, how can we possibly communicate to people that really, truly, there is music that is "better"?
From Dale Forguson
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 3:02 AM
There has always been "popular music". Long before Corelli there were folk songs and tavern songs, most forgotten and unmourned. Classical music has always had to compete for an audience with other forms but it also finds inspiration in other forms. What the future holds for Classical music is opportunity.
From Michael Latham
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 3:11 AM
Corwin, I know it is an old chestnut but sometimes it really is true, The darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. The pendulum will swing back in some fashion or another. I remember that medieval music had a big audience back in the 90's. After all, who would have guessed that Hildegard Von Bingen would have become hip in our modern age? Many young people are looking for something that has a deeper spiritual meaning than rap and hip hop. Bluegrass music has become quite big and bluegrass festivals are well attended all over this country and even in Europe as my generation turns away from the pop and country crud one hears on the radio these days.

I, for one, even though I love and play Bluegrass, traditional Appalachian and Celtic, and still like older rock music, subscribe to my regional PBS radio simply for the fact that they play wonderful classical music at night. Besides buying baroque (my favorite) CD's, PBS is my only access to classical music. There are many like me all over that still have an appreciation for, in my opinion, some of the best music written in human history. We just don't have easy access to the music played live.

So I would just say don't give up. The classical music artists just need to find the niches they can successfully fill and go forward with confidence. Hope I made sense.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 3:44 AM
Classical is just a niche?

I submit that it is better than anything else. A lot better.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 3:16 AM
I only listen to classical music, so yes, I think it is best!

Entertainment trumps art. Media covers what will generate eyeballs, to profit the owners or the shareholders. Nothing new here.

On the other hand, things roll downhill. How many publishers, editors, owners, and board members of these media outlets believe classical music is important enough for dedicated critics and columnists to regularly cover the subject and review the concerts? How many of the media bosses attend classical concerts?

Whilst crickets chirp at that last bit, it is with eyebrows raised high that I notice your words "very softened", Corwin. With great respect, I am happy to loan you a spare shoulder rest, if you need one.

Thanks for writing this.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 4:30 AM
What would I do with an SR? I don't need a doorstop.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 11:19 AM
If it's any consolation to you, Corwin, classical music may be further declining in the States and yet the big picture is, elsewhere and certainly in China, it is "it" & learning classical piano is the thing for children to aspire & do if you can afford it and many can. Speaking for myself, I see differently only most recently, on joining the ranks of the silver-haired populace. It takes time. Sometimes a lifetime for those who come across this rare (difficult to understand) pearl in their hectic 20s/30s - there is no rhyme or reason why we never seem to have the time or patience to listen when younger or to consider a change from old favourites/established habits? If you believe something is, in truth, the real thing, it will never really "decline" in the midst of a sea of clamouring dissent by false prophets unless you also believe that USA is the centre of the universe. Truth does not become false just because less proclaim, believe or follow it. There will always be a blessed, enlightened & convinced tribe even if they happen to be in the minority at a particular point in time. So I don't lose any hope/sleep over the so-called "decline" of classical music. It's considered unique and high culture in the Far East. Lift up your eyes & countenance & for the moment consider the big picture. Look East.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 4:47 PM
Teresa, I am gratified that the East is embracing the artifacts of the culture. Unfortunately they will only have its incidents unless they embrace the values of the culture. We can hope that that follows.

As good as that is it doesn't lessen my sadness for what is happening here.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 5:40 PM
It all depends on how you define classical music.
Is classical music:
1. Music that has stood the test of time?
2. Anything within the Western European classical tradition?
3. Music written for the concert hall or opera house?
4. A selected repertoire of frequently played masterworks?

If we accept option #1, then there are many questions.
Is everything in the western classical tradition automatically the best? What about minor composers like Telemann, Couperin, CPE Bach, Donizetti, von Weber, Bellini, etc. Do they belong in the pantheon?

What about the music of Fritz Kreisler? Or other violinist composers such as Joachim, Hubay, Ernst. What about Sarasate?

Is every single one of Vivaldi's concertos, an eternal masterpiece? How about every single one of Schubert's 600 songs? Personally, having had the opportunity to get to know a lot of Schubert's lesser known songs, I would say that a large percentage of them are not masterpieces.

What about composers such as Gershwin or Cole Porter who are definitely from the other side of the tracks? Gershwin is finally being accepted in the concert hall, but he is definitely not a product of the western european tradition )even though he is influenced by it.)

What about John Williams? Is he forever doomed to be a second class citizen because he writes for the movies rather than the concert hall? Does anybody really think that he is inferior to composers such as Arvo Part or Ligeti?

What about Mark O'Connor? His music is played in the concert hall more than just about anybody else living today. Is his music classical?

My personal feeling is that the barriers are being broken down and that is a good thing and long overdue.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 7:50 PM
Corwin, if you speak this strongly in public you run the risk of being seen as one of those classical snobs that people sneer at. (Perhaps you don't care about this, but that's grist for another mill.) Your diatribe starts to sound like those hard-core Christians who claim that anyone who doesn't belong to their denomination and sect, and practise the identical rituals, are doomed to eternal damnation.

Let's turn down the heat, shall we? I love classical music too, but I can also appreciate the best examples of other genres (with the possible exception of rap, although I'm not about to launch a full-scale campaign against it).

Last night at a local bluegrass jam I was playing my fiddle (as well as my viola, which blew a few minds). We all had a great time. And late at night, when we mellowed into some swing tunes from the '40s, another fiddler and I shared a break and turned it into a duet into which we poured our hearts and souls. No comic book stuff here.

I agree that we need to improve the image of classical music. But you can't build something up by tearing others down. Instead of walking around with our noses in the air and denigrating all other sorts of music, why not show people why we enjoy classical music so much? This might be hard in today's sound-bite society, but if people had the time to sit down and listen to the last movement of Brahms' Symphony no. 2, how many of them wouldn't feel excited and revitalized? If you can get a child to watch the Disney classic Fantasia, you'll probably wind up with a Tchaikovsky lover - even though it might take 20 years for the seed you plant to burst into flower.

On a side note, you say:

If the Minnesota Orchestra were the "it" thing in Minneapolis-St. Paul would this fight even be happening? I don't think so.

I'm not so sure. Greed has been with us for thousands of years (although it was in the '80s that it became redefined as a virtue). Look at the fluff and corruption in the current "it" things, like politics, computers, smart phones - and yes, pop music.

Is there still such a thing as better?

Yes, there is. And you'll find it in lots of places. Our job is to try to make things better wherever we can. And we can't do this by attacking things outside our own sphere of interests - at least not without alienating the very people we're trying to win over.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 8:29 PM
I can guarantee you that what happened in Minneapolis has very little to do with the state of classical music in general. Instead, it has to do on the state of labor-management relations and national politics. Take it from someone who has spent the last year of her life obsessing on the conflict...please don't take any broad lessons from our clusterf*** and try to apply it elsewhere in America. It's a very specific muck of personality conflicts here.

If you look at the publicly available records, it becomes frustratingly easy to make a case that upper management WANTED a substantial revenue decrease around this time so that they would have a better case to reduce musician salaries and downgrade the institution. They talked openly in their minutes about how they wanted to take out large endowment draws in 2011 and 2012 to make a case for axing musician compensation. I have little doubt they wanted to do the same thing with donations and earned revenue. Why exactly they wanted to reduce musician salaries so far is cover up extremely poor investments made in the Great Recession? To exert control over musicians and the artistic direction of the organization? To try to get rid of Osmo two years before his contract expired? To set in place a model that other major orchestras could follow? All of the above? We don't know yet. I wish we did.

But one thing we do know: symphonic music is alive and well in Minnesota. Truly. You only have to go to one of the musicians' invariably sold-out concerts to know that.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 10:54 PM
Emily, So there is no problem then? The musicians will reform themselves as an orchestra with a different name and move on paying the bills with current revenues? Good for them. The arts are in much better shape in Minnesota than I thought .
From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 8, 2013 at 10:54 PM
Emily, So there is no problem then? The musicians will reform themselves as an orchestra with a different name and move on paying the bills with current revenues? Good for them. The arts are in much better shape in Minnesota than I thought .
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 11:44 AM
I agree with Charlie that we can't improve the image of classical music by attacking things outside our own sphere of interests.

We will in all likelihood alienate somewhat the very ones we're trying to win over. I am co-organising some daytime concerts and we have an amazing concert pianist playing a full recital to be followed shortly in the same beautiful venue by another concert with youth music that is something totally different! People are both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised. In answer to criticism, I explained that the timing is deliberate - it is calculated to give some youths and young families who are bound to arrive early although coming for the later concert, an opportunity to catch or enjoy a glimpse of the earlier classical music. The old church has been renovated in such a way that music can be heard clearly beyond its glass doors in the quiet waiting area. There is no necessity to offer any judgment of the one over the other to the disapproval of "hard core" classical fans - each to his own.

However, Corwin, whilst I hear your sadness that stems from your perception of what is happening in the States, what I fail to grasp is, what you mean by new classical music fans elsewhere or abroad, not embracing the "values" of the culture?

First, what precise, existing and exclusive "values" are you referring to?

Secondly, how can you accurately judge or conclude that classical music lovers in the East (be it from China/Japan/Korea/Singapore) presently, have not or do not or cannot [as yet] embrace such (again, assumed) "values"? Aren't you assuming a bit too much, possibly? Its existence, implicitly, its uniformity of identity, its importance and so-called effect (above) are all your assumptions.

Well, at the risk of anyone eventually falling into the trap of thinking of you as a sort of snob, can you explain what/which [American?] value(s), you meant? I know of no American "values" that underpin classical music? After all, the roots of classical music lie with European history and culture. Where will Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Gershwin or Glass be in the firmament without Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? I say this whilst confessing at the same time that my knowledge of classical music is extremely limited. I came to classical music late in life.

By snob, above, I mean, a patriotic American snob who doesn't care that classical music is treated as great (not just good) outside his own country if any such classical music rebirth/revival is not led by American audiences or somehow from his own glorious shores. Such a one is more a self-misguided patriot than a classical music fan who will, clearly, rejoice and celebrate its renaissance - anywhere.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 2:33 PM
"I am concerned that we no longer think of classical music as partaking of and deriving its power from fundamental values of western civilization. Without that mindset can we expect art to elevate us to something better?"

"Teresa, I am gratified that the East is embracing the artifacts of the culture. Unfortunately they will only have its incidents unless they embrace the values of the culture."

Regarding the first quote, as a card-carrying member of western civilization, or its remnants, I’m not sure I have the faintest idea what those “fundamental values” are that you value so highly. Regarding the second quote, I’m not sure that that it's true – about the values thing (whatever they are) – and also about the capacity for those of another culture to understand and appreciate western classical music. All in all, I’m wondering if what you're mourning is the loss of classical music’s popularity (or universally acknowledged supremacy, if there ever was such a time) or something else that you seem to think classical music represents -- perhaps some imagined past in which everyone believed in, liked, and valued exactly the same things? I don't know. But asserting on the one hand that western classical music is better (much better) than all other forms of music, and on the other, insisting that other cultures simply aren’t capable of understanding it ("It’s a Western Civ thing, you wouldn’t understand") isn’t going to win any converts to classical music. It is snobbery, and it's offputting. It isn’t about that tired so-everything-is good-so-nothing-is-good argument; it’s about the apparent need to assert that your “god” (or preferred music, or values or whatever ) is the “one true god. ” There are, like Duke Ellington said, only two types of music – good and bad -- and genre has nothing to do with it. Art, artistry and value exist in classical, jazz, blues, bluegrass, newgrass, hip hop, name it. Thankfully, today’s most vital young composers know this and they have been breaking down these artificial walls between different genres of music.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 3:35 PM
Well you have acknowledged my fears. For all who feel similarly please don't cry too hard when the next classical arts organization folds for lack of support. You'll know the reason. It doesn't matter.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 9, 2013 at 7:06 PM

If that gets under your skin so much, why don't you prove your commitment? How about, for a start, stop moaning like some miserable nonsense-mumbling teenager & get up & DARE do something about it? Why not? To organise some outreach community concerts like my friends and I regularly do, could be a start. If you do nothing, except moan, groan & sob silently with self-pity in your cosy corner, you are just as much to blame for the status quo, right? As Einstein observed: "Nothing happens until something moves." Consider, getting off your high American horse or just get up: read Seth Godin, brainstorm with like minded locals, make a plan and take action. Do something!

Sorry, Corwin, if that sounds harsh? You do have a choice between courage and complacency, action and pure non-action argument and then go and figure out yourself what to do about what depresses you. Just occasionally, one has to share a wee bit of light that bewilders/offends the mind - at the risk of being misunderstood - to reach the heart.

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