When you can't get no satisfaction from classical music...
In case you haven't heard, the Rolling Stones, those preternaturally and perpetually youthful bad boys of the British Invasion, are currently on their 50th anniversary tour. Yes, Mick, Keith and the gang are still at it as they near 70, and still intermittently give it all they've got, according to this morning's New York Times review. Good for them, and long may they rock! And what did the audience get for their money? Here's how reviewer Ben Ratliff sums it up:
What is a Stones show? Musically, now that they’re in their 50th year and a long time before now, it doesn't seem to be so much about the performances you’re actually hearing in real time. It’s an oldies show that can become a flickering re-enactment ritual: momentarily you hear a sound that’s both well-worn and alive, with a huge amount of meaning attached to it — it’s almost always a guitar riff or a drum fill — and then it’s gone, pulled under into a more functional or starchier or sometimes sloppier passage.
Goodness, that sounds like some classical shows I've been to lately. You know the ones: well-worn classics, re-enacted in front of your ears, intermittently coming alive, only to sink comfortably back into desultory routine. You're hearing the music in "real time," but nothing new is going on. Has rock thus entered the dreaded "classic" phase of its life-cycle, with the original masters on their last legs, and the younger generations studying their ancestors' work as if it were some ancient manuscript?
Well, it's one thing when the songs are short, the energy (and volume) high, and everyone is having a good ol' time. It's another when you're two minutes into a 40-minute classical work, and have already started to scan the artist bios and donor lists out of boredom. The performers may as well be wearing signs that says "abandon hope, all ye that enter here." OK, you could almost overlook it if it's your local pick-up group and the concert is free. You can't, however, when you've paid good money to hear the expensive stars, and they let you down. It happens too often, including, I dare say, in concerts broadcast on WFCR. Actually, and not to be provincial, I'd usally rather hear the local folks give it their best, like yesterday's superb program by the Smith College Chamber Society. Man, that Brahms Piano Quartet still has me buzzing! Now, what if classical musicians played every concert as if the responsibility of maintaining and building the classical audience was totally on them? If that were the case, they'd really cook! Why should we demand anything less?
Then there's the issue of new, or I should say, "new" music. I doubt that anyone boogieing to the Stones at the Barclays Center the other night was under the impression that they were hearing the latest cutting-edge sounds. Then why are century-old composers and styles still presented as "contemporary" at classical concerts? Last summer's Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, which I fulminated about in a previous post, provided an object lesson in how to parade "modernist" music around as if it were the newest, hippest stuff around. What ever virtues it may possess, new and hip it ain't.
C'mon people: John Cage and "Pierrot Lunaire" just turned 100, modernist master Elliott Carter just died at 103, and next year is the centennial of The Rite of Spring. Even the original minimalists, such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, are in their seventies, and their epoch-making "post-modern" works upwards of a half-century old. Yeah, I know that classical music is supposed to have a longer shelf life than pop, and that it takes longer for classical composers to mature, though history certainly provides many notable counter-examples. But any art form so consistently stuck in the past will stagnate and eventually die. Here's my rule of thumb: Any time a classical style has spawned a later variant marked with a prefix such as "post-" or "neo-," the original style is history. It doesn't mean the best of it can't still be enjoyed. It just means that it's not contemporary any more, and we should therefore stop feeling any more collective responsibility for programming it than we would for Dixieland jazz or barbershop quartets. If you want to keep boogieing to it, fine, but if you really want to hear what's new, check out what those crazy kids today are doing. It will knock you out!