Classical Music Goes to Washington

Classical Music Goes to Washington

If you get a minute, check out Anne Midgette’s recent review of performances at the White House by Sharon Isbin, Awadagin Pratt, Alisa Weilerstein, and Joshua Bell (along with a number of student performers). Although Midgette’s take on the performances themselves was a bit tepid, the review offers some pointed takeaways that are worth considering:

  • First of all, these performances took place under the umbrella of cultural outreach. One hundred and twenty student musicians were in attendance. I wonder how many classical musicians have been invited to perform at the White House without an educational mandate; some, certainly—maybe even most—but I’d love to see a pie chart.

  • Midgette cites the copresence of “jazz, country, and Latin” performances as evidence that “classical music no longer automatically holds a position of predominance among today’s power elite.” She notes that there was a time when only classical music was played at the White House. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? On the other hand, I’m sure none of us is surprised to hear that the wealthy and influential no longer necessarily care about classical music. (On an unrelated note, did anyone else notice that Lee Greenwood was appointed to the National Arts Council?)

  • The guest performers—a clutch of classical music’s young celebrities, in effect—went to great pains, according to Midgette, to broadcast their intensity and “passion,” even, Midgette alleges, at the expense of producing sharp, solid interpretations. Maybe Joshua Bell plays differently for kids than he does for subscribers; it was nice to read that he spoke to the audience during his performance, though.
I know I’m going to get wrung out for saying this, but I have to be honest: If this is what classical music in the large-P Public Sphere is going to look like, I’ll be just as happy if contemporary music stays in the margins. For one thing, as anyone who’s written a grant proposal lately is no doubt aware, educational outreach is a great way to sell classical music. Outreach is important, no question, but playing classical music just for the hell of it is important too. For another, the adopted Barnes & Noble practice of shelving “Classical” alongside “Jazz,” “Country,” and (perhaps least decsriptive of all) “Latin” provides a pretty shoddy mental-organizational shorthand that doesn’t serve any of those putatively monolithic styles of music. Certainly the label “Classical” as manifest at the White House performance wasn’t construed to include anything written in the past fifty years. For a third, although older classical music and contemporary music both have their shares of young, famous, and passionate performers, should we be ceding the limelight to them at the expense of older, less famous, and more deliberate players?

On balance, presenting classical music in the White House sends a positive message, and to quibble about the details of that message is perhaps to miss the point of it. Exchanging a little autonomy for a lot of exposure may be a fair trade—it may even be a bargain—but the sting of losing that autonomy seems to have lingered in Midgette’s skin, and I imagine it would’ve lingered in mine too, if I’d been there.

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