The New York Times’ shocker!


No, the headline to this post doesn’t refer to the New York Times’ controversial firing of its executive editor Jill Abramson.  Neither do I mean the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, raking Book Review editor Pamela Paul over the coals for daring to publish a review that Ms. Sullivan disagreed with.  (I’m on the reviewer’s and Ms. Paul’s side, if you need to know.)

What I’m drawing your attention to from a few weeks back no doubt meant little to the typical Times reader.  But in its own small way, it’s something heartening and hopeful to those of us eager to have our beloved classical music move forward to a better, more audience-friendly place.

It came in Vivien Schweitzer’s review of a recital by pianist Peter Serkin at New York’s 92nd Street Y (photo above).  Mr. Serkin, one of America’s finest and most serious pianists, is by his own admission not a crowd-pleaser.  “I think that programs show integrity when there is no attempt to win anyone over at all,” he said in a 2011 conversation published on the 92Y Blog, and quoted by Ms. Schweitzer in her review.

True to that spirit, Mr, Serkin’s program under review consisted of one work by 16th/17th Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, three by veteran American Modernist* Charles Wuorinen, one piano rarity by Danish symphonist Carl Nielsen, and Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” (“Farewell”) Sonata.  Other than perhaps the fairly gentle Beethoven, there’s not a winner-overer in the bunch, with Wuorinen’s brand of gritty dissonance being an especially tough sell  — especially, apparently, to the half of the hall that declined to attend.

Normally, a close, long-time reader of Times’ classical reviews like me would have expected unreserved praise for Mr. Serkin’s thorny, audience-unfriendly programming.  From former critics Paul Griffiths and Edward Rothstein to current chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini, the Times’ critics have been staunch advocates of difficult, cerebral Modernism, despite/because of its lack of audience appeal.  And don’t think readers haven’t picked up on this.  After our last session, one of the attendees of a classical appreciation class I recently taught, someone whose musical knowledge would have to be described as very general, made this very observation, unprompted by me or anyone else within earshot.  Huh!

Anyhow, after turning her attention to Mr. Wuorinen’s works, Ms. Schweitzer shocked my world with the following paragraph:

It is often remarked that contemporary audiences have a greater appetite and appreciation for Modernist art than for Modernist music. But abstraction can be easier for the eye, than the ear, to absorb. A set of abstract shapes and colors can mesh into a mesmerizing visual whole, but the ear (or certainly my ear) struggles to process a series of notes and gestures that seem to have no connection to one another. Rigorous methods of composition can sometimes result in bafflingly disjointed sounds that resemble a nonsensical sentence.

All right, to you it may not be such a big deal.  Indeed, this point has been made many times over.  But to me, its appearance in a Times review is a sign that, however belatedly, perhaps the “paper of record” is finally getting with the times, if you’ll pardon the expression.  Not that Modernism has to be banished from the current concert scene.  But rather than persist in blaming the audience for not coming around to the music the critics prefer, even decades after the music’s heyday, it’s extremely refreshing to read a critic taking the audiences’ tastes seriously enough to ask why this might be, and to draw a conclusion that does not insult the audiences’ taste or intelligence.

As for Mr. Serkin, he may of course program as he likes, and adopt whatever relation to this audience he chooses.  If his audience responds to his refusal to win them over by their refusal to be won over, it’s not the audience’s fault.  How nice for a New York Times critic to say so.

*By “Modernism,” Ms. Schweitzer and others who use the term are not referring to current musical styles.  Rather, the term refers to a variety of loosely related musical styles of the 20th century, most of them extremely dissonant, composed by such leading figures as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter.  You might think of musical Modernism as the sound equivalent of Jackson Pollock, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Samuel Becket, et al.

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