What Shouldn’t Change About Classical Music

For more than three decades as a critic, I’ve shared my passion for classical music. I’ve also expressed frustrations with the field. Of all the performing arts, mine has been the most conservative, the most stuck in a core repertory of works from the distant past.

Major orchestras and opera companies must make fostering relationships with living composers a top priority, and work harder to empower female and minority artists. Institutions need to find more effective ways to connect with their diverse communities. If this means modifying — even tossing out — old models for presenting music, like the increasingly obsolete subscription series format that’s routine at most orchestras, so be it.

Yet, especially after 18 perilous months when this art form seemed in danger of disappearing altogether, I love it more than ever. I want to protect it, as well as shake it up.

So what things about classical music shouldn’t change? I’ve been pondering this as I approach my departure after 21 years as the chief classical music critic of The New York Times.

It’s not inconsistent to fret over the fixation on a roster of familiar works while also extolling the repertory that’s been created over centuries. The staples are often staples for good reasons.

The musical, dramatic and emotional richness of Puccini’s “La Bohème” emerges anew every time an eager cast, good orchestra and sensitive director present it. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto may be performed too much for its own good, but it’s undeniable: The score is ingenious, original and exciting.

Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” — 48 preludes and fugues for keyboard in two books — is a foundational achievement of Western music. He wrote on the title page that these pieces were for “the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning.” And, starting with his own children, students over generations — me included — have studied and played these pieces. Yet when the superb pianist Jeremy Denk did the first book from memory at the 92nd Street Y this month, his performance was a reminder of how audaciously inventive and awesomely intricate, how fresh and startling, Bach’s music is.

That said, the concept of the “standard repertory” will continue to sap the vitality of music until it is understood to fully embrace the contributions of composers over the last 100 years: Bartok and Boulez, Stravinsky and Kaija Saariaho, George Walker and Judith Weir. If music is to have a bright future, as well as a storied history, today’s composers — impressive voices like Andrew Norman, Kate Soper and Daniel Bernard Roumain — will take us there. It’s dismaying that, of some 100 pieces that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform on its main series this season, just two are by living composers, and neither was written in the 21st century.

Tommasini playing one of the 88 pianos placed outdoors around New York by the nonprofit group Sing for Hope in 2013.Credit…Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

But here I go again, slipping back into warnings and calls for change. What else about the field should be cherished? The sheer, splendid sound of music. A magnificent voice carrying through a spacious opera house. A vibrant orchestra performing in a fine hall. A string quartet playing in an intimate venue that seats only a couple hundred people.

In our pervasively amplified, streamed, digitally connected world, the vibrant spaces where classical works are ideally performed are precious preserves of natural acoustics.

Of course, we should be careful not to let the ambience of these experiences feel rarefied, as if audiences are entering sacred temples. Yet even newcomers I’ve taken to hear a renowned orchestra at Carnegie Hall are often stunned by the shimmering, resonant sound. We may be missing an opportunity today to sell a classical concert as a break from routine, an invitation to turn off devices and sit in silence among others — listening, sometimes for long stretches, to works that demand our focus, music that may be majestic, mystical, shattering, tender, wrenching, frenetic, giddy or all of the above.

Since the early 20th century, electronic resources have dramatically expanded the range and palette of sounds and colors. Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Osvaldo Golijov and many other composers have created works that imaginatively fold electronic sounds into traditional ensembles — with transfixing results.

Still, I hope that composers and performers will never forgo the magic of unamplified sound in natural acoustics. Think of how the Broadway musical changed starting in the early 1960s, when amplification became commonplace, often to excess. I can only imagine how glorious it must have been to hear Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers in “Girl Crazy” in a theater with no amplification — or John Raitt, who could have been a Verdi baritone, singing Billy’s “Soliloquy” in “Carousel.” Those days are gone.

During the time I’ve reported on this field, I’ve been continually impressed by the entrepreneurial energy of artists who — realizing that traditional career paths were becoming limited, and that major institutions were overlooking new generations of creators — ventured off on their own. They formed composer-performer collectives and ensembles, like Bang on a Can, which presents concerts and festivals of experimental music; and the International Contemporary Ensemble, founded by the flutist Claire Chase, who has been an impassioned voice calling on young musicians to create their own groups and put on concerts anywhere, anyhow.

This entrepreneurial bent, often born of necessity, goes back a long way. I love reading about how, during the mid-1780s, when patrons and imperial posts were not coming his way, Mozart mounted his own concerts in Vienna for a few years — renting halls, including some unconventional spaces like a restaurant ballroom, and lining up players. His programs always featured piano concertos he wrote for himself. Mozart has many successors today, like the string players of the JACK Quartet, tenaciously devoted to contemporary music; and, lately, the American Modern Opera Company, whose mission is to develop discipline-blurring new works and whose core members include singers, composers, directors, instrumentalists and dancers.

And in Central Park again, in September 2020, experiencing Ellen Reid’s mobile, app-based work “Soundwalk,” presented by the New York Philharmonic.Credit…Justin Kaneps for The New York Times

What also must not change is the mission of our excellent conservatories and university music schools. As the word suggests, conservatories are dedicated to maintaining and passing on a tradition. To arrive as a student at one of these great institutions is humbling: You study your instrument with a master; you analyze great works of the past in classes taught by formidable composers.

Yet these places also empower you. That was certainly my experience as an undergraduate music major and then a graduate student at Yale. Over weeks and months, the pianists who studied with my teacher, Donald Currier, regularly played for each other under his oversight. I listened as older students made progress with daunting works like Brahms’s “Handel Variations,” Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” and Schumann’s Fantasy in C. The performances they eventually gave of these iconic scores remain signature moments of my musical life. In a rush of enthusiasm, I’d think: “Who needs Vladimir Ashkenazy? Look what we can do!”

Today’s schools are also hotbeds of innovation and contemporary work where you can take in whole festivals devoted to Latin American music; hear John Adams conducting his own pieces and older scores he admires; or attend (as I once did at Boston University) a series of recitals presenting the complete songs of Britten, performed in chronological order.

In cities and towns across America, these schools are rich community resources, offering opportunities for audiences to hear recitals, chamber music, orchestra concerts and staged operas — often for free, or at very affordable prices. So much for the perception that classical music is elitist and expensive.

Most important, music lovers should never cease feeling gratitude to the musicians who play works old and new with skill, commitment and sensitivity. For me this roster stretches from the giants of my youth, like Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi, to the exciting new artists who keep arriving, like Joyce DiDonato, Jennifer Koh, Davóne Tines and Igor Levit.

These are all stars. Yet I have always been especially affected by the dedicated, highly skilled and selfless artists who have less prominent profiles and live more workaday lives in music — performers who play older repertory beautifully, while being instinctively drawn to the new; performers who are ready at a moment’s notice to take part in a premiere by a composer friend, because that’s what it means, and what it has always meant, to be a musician. Among pianists alone, I could single out Sarah Cahill, Blair McMillen and Conor Hanick. These accomplished artists are the good citizens of classical music.

Whenever I have spoken to students or emerging professional performers about my work, I say that what I do is not as hard — nor nearly as essential — as what they do, but that we’re on the same side, that we all want music to thrive, and that I can help.

That’s what I’ve tried to do.

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