How far should we go to "market" great art?
15 Dec 2009
Expressing the inexpressible...?
I wish I could blog more often, but I find it difficult to find the time.  It is not unusual to have more time for such non-essential activities when I am away from home, which I am now - I am in Seoul, Korea, in the middle of a week of concerts with my friend and colleague, violinist Stefan Jackiw.  The trip coincides with the recent release of our CD on Sony/Korea of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (we hope it will be released in the US and other countries soon).  As a side note, it sure can be tricky to use Google (of which Blogspot is a part) when you are in another country, because it knows where you are and asks questions, in this case, in Korean.  I know a few important phrases now in Korean (Do you speak English?  Where is the bathroom?  and a few others) but I certainly cannot read even a single letter.

It is always interesting to notice, as I play in different places, that classical music is marketed in a different way.  Here in Korea we feel very appreciated, more so I would say than in the US or in Europe.  For example, the presenter flew us business class and has put us in one of the very best hotels.  I can assure you that this is not typical in the classical music business (unless you are in a major orchestra, where the players' unions in many case have successfully gotten their employers to give them the best possible accomodations when they go on tour).

Yesterday, a few hours after arriving at the airport after the long flight from New York at 4:30am, we went to give a performance/press conference.  There were a good number of journalists in attendance, some from print, others radio or TV.  This is the kind of reception that might have greeted Vladimir Horowitz in the US many decades ago, but I'm not sure how many of these things even a mega-star like Yo-Yo Ma might do in the US today.  Beforehand Stefan and I each had to spend 20-30 minutes getting "hair and makeup".  Of course, as red-blooded American men this is not exactly normal for us, but I have to say we both did look a lot better than normal.  All of this, plus a closely organized question and answer session with the press, was in order to sell some CD's of Brahms.  In fact, to some degree we are pushed around (in a helpful way) by our people at Credia, the Korean manager, as we are a part - just a part, mind you - of the marketing strategy for selling the CD's and our concerts this week.

(Stefan Jackiw - in normal everyday life, he doesn't always dress quite so well)

It would be nice if people came to concerts just because they want to hear great music played (I hope) with insight and passion.  But the truth is that concert-goers need a little more of a push sometimes, and it seems that the Koreans understand the need for the extras (like hair and makeup) that make the product (us?  Brahms?  Art?) more enticing to the customers.  It is like food - a delicious mess is not going to sell as well as something more beautifully plated.  In fact, it may even seem to taste better.  But does music sound better when we are wearing tuxedos?  Or do the tuxedos just signal to the audience that something special is happening on stage, and they ought to pay attention?

On the plane trip, I watched on one of the 50+ channels available on Korean Airlines entertainment system a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa, and the Berlin Philharmonic doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Musikverein in Vienna.  (Just the fact that this was one of the options - along with videos of Andras Schiff and Yevgeny Kissin - on a KAL flight should tell you something of the value Koreans place on classical music).  The performance was part of the attraction for the audience (though it seemed VERY slow, and perhaps more about violin playing than about Beethoven), but as I watched I realized that a big part of the experience for the audience in attendance would be the gorgeous and historic concert hall itself, the spectacle of hearing the unofficial greatest orchestra in the world, and of course just looking at Anne-Sophie Mutter, who looked fantastic, and was dressed as glamorously as a Hollywood star at the Oscars.

(yes, this is the great violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, not a fashion model)

If the audience attended for some combination of all these reasons, I'm not bothered by that - the truth is that, in the end, they listened to the monumental Beethoven Violin Concerto, instead of spending their time and dollars on something more superficial.  If people come to our concert in Seoul and/or buy the CD in part because we looked good in our makeup on TV, I won't complain.  At least we are still playing great music.

Where it gets hard for me is when we have to play second-rate music, music that is kind of like candy - immediately appealing, but which does not have lasting interest, in order to sell tickets.  I would say that many if not most concert presenters in America feel pressure to do this: put on programs of orchestras playing video-game music, for example, and avoid great works that are too long for the channel-surfing attention span of today's audiences.  Is this the only way? 

Although people are quick to point to the imminent demise of classical music, as it finds itself needing to "pander" to audiences who want Pops concerts more than "real" classical music, I know that this phenomenon is not at all new.  We may remember Schubert today as the composer of masterpieces like the C-major Cello Quintet, "Die Winterreise" and the B-flat major Piano Sonata, but in order to try to eke out a living he *also* wrote trivial little piano pieces and pieces for piano duet, which were tuneful and easy to play, and hence more marketable.  Brahms had the luxury of writing great, serious music in part because he had a huge financial success early in his career with the Hungarian Dances, which are wonderful, but certainly not the reason Brahms is remembered as a great composer.  Maybe all of us have to find time both to get an audience *now* by doing a *tiny* bit of dumbing-down, but also to do the things that may have a small audience now but will be remembered and still relevant later.

What do you think?
<August 2020>


Beethoven: Concerto for Piano no 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Piano no 1 in G minor, Op. 25
Barber: Concerto for Piano, Op. 38
Brahms: Variations (11) for Piano on an Original Theme, Op. 21 no 1
Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2
Schoenberg: Little Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 19
Kirchner: Pieces (5)
Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81/BB 89
Bartók: Romanian Folkdances (6), Sz 56/BB 68
Bartók: Sonata for Piano, Sz 80/BB 88
Bartók: Rondos (3) on Slovak folktunes for Piano, Sz 84/BB 92
Bartók: Allegro barbaro for Piano, Sz 49/BB 63
Bartók: Mikrokosmos, Sz 107/BB 105: Book 6
Bartók: Dance Suite for Piano, Sz 77/BB 86
Ravel: Concerto for Piano in G major
Beethoven: Sonata for Piano no 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 no 2 "Moonlight"
Dvorak: Trio for Piano and Strings no 3 in F minor, Op. 65/B 130
Rachmaninov: Concerto for Piano no 2 in C minor, Op. 18

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