Tommasini’s Sore Spot hits my Sore Spot

I understand why Tommasini is upset. A notorious philistine expressing pride in an art-form you know and love is certainly cringe-inducing. But in my opinion this critic has gone about trying to “rescue” it’s reputation in entirely the wrong way.

He’s moved to reassure his readers that The Symphony is not really a big deal, so Donald Trump was wrong to feel proud of it.

Of course, it was inept of Trump to brandish The Symphony* as a symbol of Western culture’s global superiority. Firstly, because I doubt he understands what the word symphony means, and secondly, because it’s not a competition in the first place. This particular art-form, like all art-forms, stems from a specific socio-cultural epoch, and cannot be representative of an entire hemisphere’s cultural value, let alone rated alongside other art-forms from other cultures.

Tommasini could have simply argued on these grounds, but instead, he’s tied himself in knots trying to talk down the symphony’s complexity; tip-toeing around the issue of its elite design. And his discomfort is obvious. When breathlessly arguing that Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is “just as profound” as Eleanor Rigby, he admits that the former is “a whole lot longer” and that appreciating it’s “large-scale structures” is “an acquired skill”. Further, he concedes that “master composers” strove for “large-scale quality”, [and a] “sheer dimension of expression”; that it’s “ambitious and demanding”, and that “it asks for your time and attention”. He then confesses: “Even a 20-minute Haydn string quartet requires you to focus in order to grasp the structure, content and character.” And then a whimpering suggestion: “the pay-off can be exhilarating”, but only if you’re “inclined to go with it” of course.

Tommasini’s thesis is that these qualities just make the symphony “different”, and moreover, contains “no inherent artistic superiority”. Like apples are different but not superior to oranges.

But we’re not comparing apples and oranges.

I don’t think I need to include a detailed analysis of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony to prove its sophistication. You can easily look it up on Wikipedia and see for yourself how extraordinarily complex it is, not to mention listen to the work via numerous platforms. But to get a sense of its profundity, have a look at the sheer ecstasy on Leonard Bernstein’s face as he conducts the symphony’s extended climax:

And there’s a great compilation of different conductor’s reactions to this moment of almost unendurable bliss in this blog article by Brian Lauritzen (Simon Rattle’s is terrific).

Mahler himself described what is happening in this final movement as follows, and it’s worth quoting it in full to get an idea of the true scope of his project:

Once more we must confront terrifying questions, and the atmosphere is the same as at the end of the third movement. The voice of the Caller is heard. The end of every living thing has come, the last judgment is at hand and the horror of the day of days has come upon us. The earth trembles, the graves burst open, the dead arise and march forth in endless procession. The great and the small of this earth, the kings and the beggars, the just and the godless all press forward. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us, all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches. The last trump sounds; the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. In the eerie silence that follows, we can just barely make out a distant nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard: “Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt!” Then God in all His glory comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.”

Mahler’s inspiration is nothing less than life, death and eternity, and he embodies these lofty themes in a musical work that rattles your bones, throws your soul around like a rag doll and leaves you utterly exhausted.

Compare that to Eleanor Rigby, which briefly describes an old lady and a vicar in a church, and asks where lonely people come from. To support the text, a harmonic structure described as “quite spare, with a very small number of chords actually used” is employed. Now, I am a fan of The Beetles and I do admire their craft as songwriters, but I would never pretend that their music is “as profound” as Mahler’s symphonic output. That just doesn’t make any sense.

So. Seriously, what purpose does understating the symphony’s merits serve? Does it help a fan of the Beetles to suggest that Mahler’s symphonic works are ‘pretty-much the same thing’ only longer? Will that ring true for them when they experience it? I doubt it. Would you equate an episode of How I Met Your Mother with the entirety of Citizen Kane? No. You wouldn’t.

What about celebrating the fact that the symphonic repertoire is EPIC; that in fact it represents a creative high-water mark in Western culture. That pop music is great, but if you want to experience what music is really capable of, at the extreme end of humanity’s creative potential, you should have a listen to this. You’ll be amazed.

That would draw new, curious audiences.

Professionals in the classical music industry (musicians, ensembles, promoters, broadcasters, journalists), are faced with a choice when trying to attract new fans: either they downplay and dilute the repertoire, or they celebrate the value of the repertoire as it is. To me, the former isn’t really an option, because it ceases to be about classical music and becomes something else. And in doing so, don’t we end up reinforcing the same wilful ignorance, the same anti-intellectualism, that Trump represents?

I doubt Tommasini would want that. I know I don’t.

RC


*let’s assume his idea of “the symphony” was a vague conception of mid-late 19th century symphonic repertoire, like late Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius etc. As opposed to the entire symphonic tradition, from the 18th century ‘Sinfonia’ onwards…

 

In Praise of (the antifragile) Andre Rieu

41yKG1SbjsL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fascinating book Antifragile, and I’m finding it has wide ranging implications, including for classical musicians.

Taleb’s definition of ‘antifragile’ is anything “that gains from disorder.” He is careful to point out that it is the exact opposite of fragile, which isn’t – as you might first think – ‘robust’ or ‘resilient.’ Given that fragile things “hate volatility” because they are damaged by it (think of a glass cup), antifragile things love it because it makes them stronger; better; improved. So that’s one step beyond ‘robust’, which just means that volatility and disorder fails to alter the status quo.

In the front of the book, Taleb includes a large table that rates a number of items and classifies their different “types of exposure” from Fragile, to Robust, to Antifragile. Under the heading of “Reputation (profession),” he lists the following:

  • Fragile: “Academic, corporate executive, pope, bishop, politician”
  • Robust: “Postal employee, truck driver, train conductor”
  • Antifragile: “artist, writer”

That made me pause. The artist’s reputation as ‘antifragile’. I must confess I probably would have classified it as ‘fragile’. If you are attacked critically, how are you going to get hired again? What will your audience and/or clients think?

But Taleb makes a good observation.

Under the heading ‘Please Ban My Book: The Antifragility of Information’, the author explains that “books and ideas are antifragile and get nourishment from attacks.” He goes on:

“Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signalling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book.”

Now, Taleb uses books as a good example, but he is referring to art and artists in general. Replace the word ‘book’ with ‘artist’, or indeed ‘musician’, and it still very much rings true. Unlike the professions listed as ‘fragile’ above, where criticism and scandal can cause long-lasting and irreversible reputational damage, the artist can thrive on it.

It’s easy to think of pop musicians who have profited from criticism in an antifragile fashion: Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Robbie Williams, and on and on and on. But it made me wonder, are there any examples in the classical world?

Well, yes. And the most antifragile of them all has to be this guy:

andrerieu_1559_1_11_20170620125423

From my experience in the classical music industry, I know that Andre Rieu (pictured) is almost universally shunned. His two most common pejorative labels in the media seem to be “The Schmaltz King” and the “Liberace of the Violin” (ouch). And then there’s this article in the Irish Times by critic Donald Clarke, which is simply a masterclass in vitriol (one of his more elegant jabs is that the Dutch impresario “essays a class of decaffeinated classical music that makes Richard Clayderman seem like Karlheinz Stockhausen.”

Rieu’s typical response to those attacks from critics is that they are “snobs”, and it’s interesting that he never comes across as bitter. When asked about the ‘schmaltz’ tag in a 2016 interview with the New York Times he remarked, “I rather see it as a compliment”. Such defiance no doubt exacerbates his critics and fuels more scorn from them, which in turn gives him more publicity.

Indeed, Teleb says it’s “quite perplexing” that we often benefit far more from “those who have tried to harm us” than those who have “tried to help us.”

But perhaps the most antifragile thing about Rieu is how he thrived after financial ruin. In 2008 he had a marvellous time performing in front of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and, in what can only be described as a moment of mad hubris, decided to build a full-scale replica for his upcoming world tour, replete with “fountains, an ice rink, a ballroom full of dancers, [and] a state carriage covered in real gold.” (Liberace, anyone?). When the dust settled he found himself €34 million in the red and had to declare bankruptcy.

Of course the media hyperventilated about the Schmaltz King going under, and we in the Industry, who “knew all along” he was a charlatan, laughed heartily. And how did Rieu respond when asked about this seemingly fatal error of judgement?

“But it was such good advertising that all concerts were sold out the next year, and the next year I had €20 million plus”

There you go. Not only did Rieu rebound from the adversity, he benefited from it, so he goes beyond mere robustness and sits firmly in the antifragile category. No doubt about it.

 

antifragile_box-525x321

 

I think there’s a couple of big takeaways from Taleb’s concept of antifragility and the example of Rieu, regardless of what you might think of him (and I wouldn’t call myself a fan).

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that if you’re an artist, you’re uniquely placed to benefit from criticism and attacks, which definitely isn’t the case for everyone. If you’ve been anxious about whether or not your ideas are too conservative or too outrageous for the “experts” or traditionalists, Rieu’s example might help to steal your resolve.

And secondly, we’re reminded that there’s only a narrow margin of conformity in the classical music world (something I’ll expand on in future posts). Bar the odd film or pop song arrangement, Rieu and his orchestra perform standard repertoire in a very conservative manner. Sure the frocks are a bit outrageous, but he’s hardly swinging naked on top of wrecking balls. In the pop world you’re expected to be subversive and edgy, which means you have to do really extreme things to raise eyebrows (like, well, swinging naked on wrecking balls). But that’s demonstrably not so in the classical world. So, good news if you’re an artist in that sphere: it’s not too hard to be controversial!

Finally, Andre Rieu is a good example of how the artist can use volatility to its advantage. As Taleb points out, volatility forces artists to “adapt and change continuously under pressure to be fit”, and it’s this “continual supply of stressors” that provides valuable information about what works and what doesn’t. Comfort just creates atrophy, and if you’re not facing any resistance to your art, you could be in danger of becoming that “very bad thing” for an artist: boring.

So there’s another reason why adversity is perhaps something to be relished rather than feared.

Thanks Andre. I, for one, salute your antifragile ways.

(but I’ll never forgive you for this album cover):

371366

RC