Diversify the world of classical music? Some key players are digging their heels

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Because it is a day that ends in y, it is time to take up the question of the classical music repertoire. More precisely, how long can an artistic culture survive and prosper thanks to the work of the same circumscribed set of a dozen dead white European men?

Or, to put it another way: what is so terrifying about the possibility that exploring new and diverse musical sources – living composers, women, creators of color – could prove to be rewarding?

The proposition that classical music necessarily begins and ends with Beethoven and his colleagues may no longer be universally accepted, thanks to a number of factors – specific initiatives like the Catalyst Quartet’s “Uncovered” project, devoted to music of black composers, to a more general desire among American orchestras to look beyond the proven standards of classical literature. But reactionary forces still enjoy the support of many rich and influential cultural institutions.

The last evidence has come in a strange way and a little worrying interview offered to the New York Times by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. The husband and wife couple run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City and, perhaps specifically for Bay Area music lovers, are also the founding artistic directors of Music @ Menlo, the chamber music festival that has takes place on the peninsula every summer.

In this conversation, journalist Javier C. Hernández asked the duo to respond to complaints that the festival had programmed little or no contemporary music (by an account, the program of the current season counts nearly 100 pieces but only two of living composers). The topic of racial and gender diversity was not raised specifically, but the willingness to include recent music in programming can often serve as a proxy, however imperfect, for other types of inclusion.

In response, the pair doubled down. By their calculations, artistic success – yes, even diversity – can be achieved without ever leaving the comfortably familiar niche of the same old chamber works that performers have been playing for centuries.

“There is more variety and diversity in a single Haydn string quartet,” Finckel said, “than you can find in a hundred works by other composers.”

The error in this feeling is so pervasive, so deeply ingrained, that it’s hard to even know how to begin to fix it.

First of all, that’s not what diversity means. When it comes to repertoire diversification, it is a process of giving other voices – voices long silenced – a place in the ongoing musical conversation. This does not mean finding room for both “Haydn in a major key” and “Haydn in a minor key”.

More revealing, perhaps, is the wacky notion of a Haydn quartet as some sort of musical superfood, packed with so many vitamins and nutrients that if you listen to it, you never need to listen to anything else. thing.

Clarinetist Tommaso Lonquich (left), pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel bow down after performing Beethoven’s Trio, Op. 11 at Music @ Menlo in 2019. Photo: Anna Kariel 2019

Finally, watching a program packed with music from Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Ravel and others – the same programming philosophy that has long reigned on Music @ Menlo – and proclaiming that it is good like that suggests a strange lack of imagination and inventiveness. .

Finckel is like the owner of a burger restaurant who claims to have a large and varied menu because you can get a burger with ketchup or with mustard, or with ketchup and mustard, and with onions on top or on the side. At some point you have to consider that there might be other things in the world besides burgers.

In all fairness, it is important to recognize that this narrow view is not exclusive to art presenters. Unfortunately, it is rampant among classical music enthusiasts in general. There are too many fans for whom loving Schubert logically means not love all that is not Schubert.

This in turn leads to a certain chicken and egg problem. Music organizations and broadcasters that get too far ahead of their patrons risk losing their loyalty and their money. It is an insoluble difficulty which cannot simply be dismissed.

But that doesn’t just mean you shrug your shoulders and give in, or insist that the calcified musical repertoire we are now loaded with is perfect as it is and should never change. Artistic leadership – much like political leadership – is about more than just giving people what they want.

At the very least, there is a solid precedent for this kind of daring right here in the world of chamber music. Because you know who else hasn’t put too much effort into giving people what they want? Your boy Beethoven. And I think we can agree that it worked pretty well.


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