On playing the music of dead white males

I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a dinosaur, but lately the elements of truth in that statement make me a tad nervous. I mean, we all know how things turned out for them, don't we?

A musical dinosaur? (Winsor McCay's 1914 "Gertie the Dinosaur" was one of the earliest animated films.)

I was reminded of my tendencies to be comfortable with the past after listening to a podcast about a series of classical chamber music concerts that were inaugurated in Lancaster in March. Kate Umble, the driving force behind the events, was talking about her plan to replicate New York's Le Poisson Rouge, a popular nightspot where the desire to divorce all pretense from the performances is so strong that everybody calls the venue “LPR,” since saying things in French is, well. . . pretentious. Audiences at the Lancaster incarnation are urged to wear their casual clothes and so are the musicians. You don't buy tickets; instead, there's a cover charge with a bar. And the audience is urged to discuss what they're hearing with the performers during the show.

Actually, as Kate pointed out in the interview, this is a very old-fashioned way to go about it. Chamber music's natural habitat is someone's (rather large) living room. The secondary aim of the series, though, is to focus on the music of now, or at least, the recent past. Which is where my contemplation of my own extinction comes in.

I perform music by living composers on an ongoing basis, but I'd be very sad if I had to completely give up the dead ones. As I venture further into middle age, I've started to realize that there are pieces I really love that I will never play again, even though I know they would have a new richness if I did. If I were an amateur, there'd be no need to worry about the prevailing winds of change; then again, if I had a “regular” job, I doubt I'd have the time or energy to develop pieces to a level that would deepen my understanding. Even now, I don't have time to put serious work into pieces unless I'm going to perform them somewhere. Which means I have to consider whether or not anyone wants to hear them.

To be honest, I like putting on a lovely gown and playing something by Schumann or Beethoven. I make a point of performing music by African-American composers, and I'm increasingly interested in making sure I play music by women, but I wouldn't want to feel that my livelihood depended on walking away from pieces written hundreds of years ago by European men. This may never happen, but then again, I'm not sure.

Finding new audiences

It's common knowledge that a significant number of opera houses both here and in Europe are struggling to pay the bills. Juxtaposed with this information was an article I read recently about a festival of new operas where most of the works had one or two characters, modern themes, and simple orchestration. I have long advocated making opera simpler and bringing it to “the people” by presenting shorter works in venues like churches (click here for a BSR essay on this). The idea was to get the African-American community to support its own composers, but the paradigm isn't specific to any one community.

One of my colleagues feels that there's no reason for anyone to play certain pieces anymore because there are already many definitive recordings. Who needs another Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto? Especially when there are so many neglected works by living composers. Isn't it self-indulgent to churn out the same old stuff? Another colleague suggested that I spend the rest of my career just playing music by composers of African descent, for similar reasons.

There are certainly people who have made a name for themselves by being specialists. An aspect of current musical reality that Kate Umble mentioned in her interview was that you have to be an entrepreneur. There are jobs out there, but they're fewer and farther between; the people who will survive in music these days are the ones who know what the public wants, or rather, who can attract the public to what they're presenting. This isn't new either, but it does imply keeping your finger on the pulse. Or at least, repackaging your product, so it seems new and different.

My strategy has always been to play as well as I can, first and foremost. That's helpful, but it doesn't make me unique. I don't look like the average classical pianist, with my untamed afro, but that's certainly not enough. The question I'm asking myself is, should I focus less on the things I love to play, the large number of compositions I connect with on a deep level, or look for more occasions to play things that would perhaps need to grow on me? On the other hand, who knows how much longer I'll be on this Earth? Obviously, nobody goes into music as a profession unless he or she really, really loves music. I have eclectic tastes, and I've had a wide variety of musical experiences, from trying to keep up with impromptu sung testimony in a storefront Baptist church (pitch centers encouraged but not required; rhythm optional), to soloing with orchestras to playing in the pit for musicals. Each had its rewards. But as I look at my future, I feel like I'm at a crossroads.

Put away my fancy dresses and follow the innovators? Maybe. I'm sure of one thing — I don't want to be extinct.

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