Critics: Do you want classical music to reach an audience, or not?
Somewhere in the vinicity of 60,000 people showed up at New York's Central Park last Saturday to hear the New York Philharmonic. 60,000! To hear a symphony orchestra! That's a really great thing, right?
It depends on whom you ask.
Some background: To coincide with last night's Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, the New York Philharmonic joined forces with MLB for an "All-Star Charity Concert" to benefit Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The Philharmonic's music director, Alan Gilbert, showed up to conduct not in tux or tails, but in the bright orange uniform top of the National League all-star team. As a lifelong Yankees and American League fan, I don't hold this against him. MLB executive, former Yanks and Mets manager and certified Very Cool Person Joe Torre appeared to narrate a musical setting of Ernest L. Thayer's immortal poem "Casey at the Bat." And pop diva Mariah Carey, her arm in a sling following a shoulder injury, provided the glamor, pizazz and, according to the reviews, vocal fireworks. Sounds like a fun evening, doesn't it?
Again, it depends on whom you ask. The "review" on MLB's website was, of course, an unqualified rave, as it would be in most cases when an organization reviews its own event. I'd love to see a self-review that said "we really blew it last night," but won't hold my breath.
Yet, the uncritical enjoyment of the MLB review, self-serving as it obviously was, probably captured the audience's mood better than the sweet-and-sour sentiments of the New York Times ' Zachary Woolfe in his review. Oh, Woolfe was complimentary enough about the actual goings-on, though I found the critical scrunity he applied to Ms. Carey's vocalisms, as if she were singing Lucia at the Met, a little out-of-place. (And frankly, I find the way classical vocalists are frequently judged as if they were gymnasts or race horses to be a bit much, but I'll take that up in some later entry.) But because he's a classical critic, Woolfe just couldn't resist tossing a wet blanket over the festivities:
But there is no question that the evening diverted resources from the orchestra’s core mission, which in the summer should be to present as much substantive, free classical music as possible across all five boroughs.
Remember, this is not the NY Phil's actual core mission. It's the core mission Zachary Woolfe wants the orchestra to have. And for him, it's not good enough that a summer concert in the park be free and that it appeal to tens of thousands of people. No, it has to be "substantive." Now, who will judge will judge whether the Philharmonic's programming is substantive enough? The audience? Uh-uh. Mr. Woolfe and his fellow critics, that's who. And by whose standards? The audience's? No chance. It could have been 600,000 or even 6,000,000 fans at Central Park that night. Zachary Woolfe would still have wagged his finger at the Philharmonic for shirking their (i.e, his) mission.
"Which is not to say it wasn’t entertaining," Woolfe goes on to admit, though phrasing it in a way that makes entertainment into an afterthought, clearly less important than substance. Well, maybe it should be for some musical events, including some concerts by the New York Philharmonic. But not only do Woolfe's priorities strike me as backwards for a summer pops concert in the park, it seems to me that at the present precarious moment for orchestras, indeed for all classical music, entertainment is something we could use a whole lot more of, not less of.
Once upon a time, when what we now call "classical" was basically the only music around for smart and cultured Europeans, entertainment was a top priorty of the music's core mission, if anyone would have been pompous enough to put it that way back them. Unfortunately, and for reasons many and varied, classical music has, to its detrement, ceded entertainment to other musical genres. And it's paying for this with a declining fan base and diminished role in our national cultural marketplace. Not that entertainment has to connote artistic inferiority or lack of quality. I may get some blowback from this, but I rarely find junk to be entertaining, and don't think most other listeners do. But unless classical music can again offer entertainment as one of its leading attractions, it's doomed to become even more marginalized than it already is.
And when it comes to a concert for tens of thousands at Central Park — for Pete's sake, Mr. Woolfe, let them entertain us!