Thursday, August 28, 2008

Great classical music post - what is "elitism?"

I just read this post by Anthony McCarthy on the blog Echidne of the Snakes - a (lefty) political blog in general, but with some occasional fascinating bits of cultural commentary as well. I love what he has to say about the worst part of being a classical musician:

... there is, in fact, a snob audience for classical music who consider it their property, or at least their exclusive franchise. Anyone who has worked in classical music will have run into them. Some who aren’t musicians imagine that one of the greatest pleasures of being a musician, practicing, is the worst part of it. Actually, speaking for myself, it is the after concert reception that is the most brutal form of torture inflicted on musicians. The snobs who frequent and often are the reason for those events can be some of the most trying and obnoxious people in the world and you have to experience them at a time you are absolutely demolished by the experience of performance.

I have often experienced a similar sensation myself at various receptions. The difficult truth that musicians need to always deal with is that many classical music snobs in fact are the reason for the performance - at least financially. When you work in a business that is in perpetual financial crisis and is fueled by the donations of the (mostly) well-to-do, you literally can't afford to in any way alienate anyone who might be in a position to support your performances. And sometimes you get the feeling that what those supporters really enjoy, even more than the performance itself, is the chance to make you listen to how much better than others they are for having attended it. This is by no means the norm for me - most classical music supporters are sincere fans who love and support the art form in many ways, and they usually aren't snobs at all - on the contrary, some of the biggest financial supporters of my orchestra are some of the most down-to-earth and non-elitist people I know. But there are certainly snobs in the mix as well, amongst both donors and listeners to classical music.

Anyone who works in classical music, or who wants to, has to deal with the perception of many that our art form and our work is "elitist." By this they usually seem to mean that we (classical musicians and music lovers) feel that our music is inherently better than other forms, and that by listening to it we place ourselves in a superior cultural position over others. The mistake they make is in conflating complexity and elitism. Classical music is, generally speaking, more complex than most other forms of Western music, harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally. The only other Western musical genre that can equal it is jazz, another art form that is sometimes considered an "elite" taste. But far more important to refuting the elitist charge is to look at a crucial aspect of classical music that is absolutely equal to other forms of music: it can provide the listener or performer with intense emotional and/or even spiritual experiences. I think that the difference between a classical music snob and a classical music fan is that the fan doesn't imply that the emotions one experiences when listening to a Mahler song are any more or less valid than the emotions that one feels when listening to a Bob Dylan song, or a Madonna song for that matter. The fan may argue that the emotional world that the Schubert song can reveal is more rich and complex than the Madonna song, precisely because the musical materials being used are so much more rich and complex. But all music can transmit emotion and express ideas - I have had profound musical experiences while listening to pop songs, jazz sets, and operas. The snob tends to feel that the emotional experience of the Mahler is by definition better than the emotional experience of Madonna because the emotions produced by the Madonna song are "lesser" than the more "refined" emotions of the Mahler. By defining the music as base and common, they make the emotions it produces base and common. But emotions aren't high- or low-class. The experience I have while hearing a pop song I like is just as valid as the experience I have hearing Mahler 5th Symphony, even if one is very different from the other. Classical music elitism, like all elitism, is relativistic; it is obsessed with ensuring that classical music is defined by how much better it is than other types of music. I'm a fan; I just really, really love the stuff, think it reveals unique and important truths, and I want everyone else to have the chance to experience it.

So next time you find yourself at a post-concert reception with a musical elitist, try to respond with some fan spirit! Maybe you'll turn 'em into a fan. It's happened before....

Saturday, August 23, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept.: Marcel Tabuteau - How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can't Peel a Mushroom?

So who the heck is this guy? Why is this book worthy of any bassists' attention?

If you are interested in anything related to woodwind playing, string playing, phrasing, music education, orchestral performance, musicianship, the history of American orchestras, rhythm, sound, or the Curtis Institute, the name and teachings of Marcel Tabuteau are worth your attention. Marcel Tabuteau was one of the most influential figures in American music teaching from the 1920's until his death in 1966. As one of the founding teachers at the Curtis Institute, he trained generations of leading musicians. He was an oboe virtuoso in his own right and played in many of the great American orchestras, finishing with 49 years in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski and Ormandy; however, he was not only hugely influential as an oboe teacher. He also taught classes in woodwind and string ensemble work that resulted in his impacting almost every student at Curtis. His ideas of how to approach phrasing and rhythmic groupings are legendary. I've always been very interested in how great teachers approach the challenge on transmitting purely musical concepts of phrasing and musicianship to their students, and Tabuteau's ideas in this area have always piqued my interest.

I was first made aware of Tabuteau years ago through a friend of mine who attended Curtis and was later was a graduate student at Peabody. She wrote her dissertation on Tabuteau's influence on string players at Curtis and awakened an interest on my part in learning more about him. Unfortunately, at the time there wasn't a whole lot of material available that provided any primary source information on Tabuteau. Now, that situation has been corrected, and in spectacular fashion. Laila Storch, one of Tabuteau's only female students during his years at Curtis, has written a massive and surprisingly entertaining book examining Tabuteau's life and career. An intriguing mix of scholarly research, extensive interviews with musicians and family members in the U.S. and France, and Storch's own reminiscences and contacts with Tabuteau over many years, this book delivers a wealth of information on Tabuteau in a format that will intrigue both oboe scholars and musicians wanting to learn more about this amazing teacher and musician.

Storch covers the material relating to Tabuteau's childhood in France, his training at the Paris Conservatoire, and his arrival in the US mostly as a historian and researcher, since there are few friends or colleagues still alive from that time to provide much eyewitness information. But as soon as he arrives in America in 1905, the scholarly tone of the opening chapters slowly begins to mix with interview fragments and reminiscences from former colleagues, students, and friends of Tabuteau. by the time you reach the years when Storch was a student of Tabuteau's the book has transformed into a memoir, featuring reprints of the many years of (often hilarious) letters she wrote home to her parents while studying at Curtis. Then, as Storch graduates and moves on to professional oboe positions and a long teaching career, the book gradually morphs back into a primarily historical document. It's a difficult format to pull off, and the personal memoir material could very easily have been a cloying distraction from the main topic of the novel. (I greatly disliked Martin Goldsmith's book Inextinguishable Symphony for this very reason - his personal commentary on his parents' lives and how they affected him always seemed to intrude into and interrupt the narrative of their experiences as Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany.) Storch manages to mostly succeed where Goldsmith failed, using her personal story and the reminiscences of others to provide insight and revealing anecdotes about Tabuteau, rather than turning the reader's attention towards her.

In fact, Storch's letters home from school are my favorite portion of the book. They provide a first-hand window into the intense, "old-school" teaching environment cultivated by the largely European Curtis faculty, and are also interesting reminders of life during the war years, when rationing and the draft colored everyone's life (the only reason Storch was at Curtis was that there weren't enough available men to recruit due to the draft - she was literally the Rosie the Riveter of oboe!). All the students at Curtis in these early years recall being in constant terror of displeasing their teachers, and it is made clear to all of them that they have essentially no rights or boundaries as regards the faculty - Tabuteau makes his students get his dry cleaning and pick up his groceries.

And they also provide a reminder that there was a time when Curtis was a brand new school struggling to establish its reputation, rather than the eminence grise it is today. Interestingly, much of Tabuteau's teaching methodology came not from the great talent of the Curtis students he was working with, but rather from their often astonishing lack thereof! Tabuteau had to find a way to systematize the teaching of phrasing because there were so many Curtis students in need of his help.

The book is not specifically a textbook dedicated to explaining every detail of Tabuteau's teaching techniques, although it describes many elements of them. The book does include a bonus CD featuring a recording of Tabuteau at the end of his life, playing orchestral excerpts and discussing his musical ideas; it's very hard to discern what he's saying on this recording, but Storch helpfully includes a transcript in the book.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone wanting to encounter and learn from one of the great pedagogues of all time.

Welcome Back

Hi all - PBDB is slowly waking up from its summer semi-hiatus. We're putting some coffee on and getting some new posts set up for the new school year. We're gonna have a busy year at school, with a big and talented incoming class of freshmen and some good recitals and special events in the offing by both students and faculty. We'll be blogging all of that, plus whatever else may cross our minds. Coming up soon: some reviews of a few interesting music-related books I Read on My Summer Vacation. See you soon!