Musical Monotony

What PBS could do to make classical music watchable.

By David Schiff

(1,033 words; posted Tuesday, July 16; to be composted Tuesday, July 23)

Deconstruction, to put it grossly, taught us that all art was advertising. I don’t agree–I think that reduces cultural criticism to Consumer Reports–but there’s no doubt that all American television, not excluding PBS, is advertising. Last Valentine’s Day, I was watching a chamber-music concert on Live from Lincoln Center. It was billed as an evening with Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and friends. Ma explained that the mainly Schubert concert was meant to recreate the atmosphere of the Viennese house concert, in which the composer would play for his friends. He and Ax were celebrating the 20th anniversary of being friends. They greeted their dear friend Barbara Hendricks. In fact, the word “friend” popped up about every 25 seconds. Surrounding the musicians were even more friends, seated among vases of roses on the stage. The stage audience, too, looked like it came off the cast of Friends. Young, pretty, and carefully outfitted, these are people who might have dropped into Alice Tully Hall on their way to the gym.

This awkward play for the aging youth market is a perfect example of the way PBS tries to turn classical music into an advertisement for itself, all the while pretending otherwise. How else to understand the format? The first thing we see is the list of sponsors: the NEA, foundations, “and viewers like you.” Let no corporation sully the purity of this event by peddling its wares–not Sony, or Tower Records, who will, after all, reap the rewards of engaging this particular segment of the musical market. No, we’re in a private club here, open only to viewers like us. Everyone from the announcer on down speaks like an overstarched headwaiter, slowly articulating tonight’s specials. Wherever this is, it’s not in America. It’s in Culture Country, which hasn’t changed much since A Night at the Opera. Musically, it’s not really phony–these musicians are the cream of the crop. But as a representation of living culture, it’s an oh-so-tasteful scam.

Music lovers of a certain age wax nostalgic for the golden years of American television in the ‘50s, when the new medium dazzled us with the young Leontyne Price and Leonard Bernstein, convincing much of America that Amahl and the Night Visitors was a timeless masterpiece. Today, there is no classical music at all on the commercial networks. Public television has cut back its classical offerings sharply, and there is only the sporadic venting of concert music on A&E, which prefers murder mysteries to music.

The knee-jerk response is to blame this on the enemies of the NEA, but I think the fatal step was probably the move to public television in the ‘60s. Classical music was doomed as soon as it was “rescued” from the commercial arena, just as contemporary music was doomed when it was “rescued” by the universities. The problem is that classical music on TV is neither noncommercial nor commercial; it’s just dull. You won’t encounter a string quartet by Elliott Carter or Morton Feldman, or spend an evening with the intonation experiments of La Monte Young or the prophetic dissonances of Ralph Shapey. You will encounter the Trout Quintet, La Boheme, Dvorak’s New World symphony, and, yes, the Three Tenors–vastly popular, high-fee acts that presumably could compete on the open marketplace.

PBS has a geographic bias that further stifles whatever spirit might have bled through. It favors Lincoln Center over everything else. You wouldn’t know that the best orchestras in the country are outside New York. You would get no sense of how broad-based the support for classical music is around the country, or how much civic pride goes into local orchestras, opera companies, chamber-music series, and festivals. You would get the impression that classical music is as untranslatably Upper West Side as the cinnamon babka that was the focus of a Seinfeld episode. In fact, the Lincoln Center monopoly threatens the vitality of regional musical organizations, because it gives New York a national platform for fund raising.

In other words, protectionism is depriving classical music of many of the forces that could reanimate it. Concert music is a big business, supported by other big businesses. That means it is competitive, uncertain, innovative, and above all, interesting. Speak to performers, publicists, and administrators and you run smack into anxiety levels that are off the charts. Nothing surprising about that–and all that angst, insecurity, and naked ambition could make for great television, if only we were allowed to see it. Think of sports, or of how the E! channel and Hollywood gossip shows involve you in the economics of show business. TV attracts an audience when it gives people a sense of high stakes and an uncertain outcome. A sport-utility wagon on a freeway is high drama. A performance of great music is predictably great, and therefore boring.

Of course, to watch concert music on TV is to witness the mismatch of a visual medium and an aural art form. TV is inferior to recordings or radio as a medium for classical music. It cannot capture the sound of a concert, or the aura and electricity of a big event. No one will ever tell their grandchildren that they saw Horowitz on television and, to my knowledge, no tapes of Great Performances have become cult classics.

But people might be impressed enough to remember another kind of televised concert, a kind one hopes would pay for itself. Imagine this: a classical music competition. Instead of a single host, two critics kibitzing, Siskel-and-Ebert style, with instant replays to prove their assertions. Did the tempo sag? Did the maestro forget that cue? Instead of one orchestra, two or more. The New York Philharmonic vs. the Chicago Symphony, like the Knicks against the Bulls. The orchestral Class A minors–San Francisco, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, challenging the Big Five. Conservatory orchestras from Juilliard, Eastman, or Indiana vs. the pros. Judges using split-screen techniques to compare the orchestras player for player, maestro for maestro. Such a format would encourage stylistic diversity and innovative programming. It would encourage orchestras to develop their own sound and style. It would build hometown audience support and corporate sponsorship. You might even watch it with friends.