Where's the classical buzz?
As you may have read in the NY Times, heard on NPR, or otherwise found out about from other smart media, there's a new Bob Dylan album out this week. Whether or not you have any interest in hearing Dylan's "Tempest," at least you know it's out there, and probably know that it's considered by the critics to be a major statement. I'm looking forward to picking up my copy this weekend, and will let you know what I think if it strikes me strongly one way or the other. When the Bard of Hibbing sings (or whatever you call that thing he does with his throat nowadays), people care. Lots of people. They — make that we — even consider his songs to be important, significant and profound. You know, just like classical music.
Which leads to the question: When was the last time a recording of a new classical work created so much buzz? Not that classical hasn't had hit records over the years. Our used LP sale, "Vintage Vinyl," overflowed with donated copies of Van Cliburn's "My Favorite Chopin," Wendy Carlos's "Switched-On Bach" and the Jean-François Paillard version of Pachelbel's "Canon." Someone was buying these things. But a new work? I think I've even stumped myself.
Well, you could say that Dylan is pop, and that you can't expect a classical piece to have the mass appeal of a pop record. In the broadest sense, that's true. A CD of Elliott Carter String Quartets isn't going to outsell Adele or One Direction. And attracting the largest possible audience is not what Mr. Carter is aiming for.
But neither is Dylan "just" pop. He's a defining American artist for our time. He grapples with the deepest subjects, and turns them into permanently relevant artistic statements. He's touched millions of listeners and influenced a generation of musicians. He matters. And he has an audience.
Of how many current American classical composers can you say all of the above? None. Yes, we have composers of talent, seriousness, accomplishment, influence and relevance. But touching millions or playing to a Dylan sized audience? Not one. I think it would be nice if we did have such a composer. In fact, I think it would be a sign that classical music mattered again, in a way it currently doesn't. And actually, I'm optimistic. Like the Greenwich Village folk scene out of which Dylan emerged, and without which he could not have happened, America's new classical music has its own very active scenes (here's one), filled with smart, creative, talented young people, making very interesting, very here-and-now-sounding music, out of which, I hope and trust, one or two defining figures will emerge. And when their new works come out on CD, the NY Times, NPR, and the other smart media will pay attention. It can happen here, folks.