Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Making Classical Music Cool?

Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post, has an interesting piece about the participation of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in the Super Bowl halftime show. She is a good writer on music, not afraid to criticize where it is due and she has even left a comment here on the Music Salon. Read the whole thing. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Dudamel moves in a world in which meeting Chris Martin of Coldplay, and striking up a friendship with him, is not remarkable; and this meeting gave rise to the idea of getting YOLA involved in this year’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. If YOLA and Dudamel were attempting to make classical music cool for young people, this invitation clinched it. Three days ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released a video of the young musicians practicing for and talking about the halftime show, and every single kid had such a huge, infectious smile on his or her face that the venture was already a winner before the show even started.
Classical music’s vaunted elitism is tissue-paper thin: The field is always almost pitiably hungry for validation from the pop world, while appearing to disdain it. But if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in the L.A. Philharmonic video, other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.
The youth orchestra is a wonderful project and Dudamel deserves praise for his support and for getting them involved in such a high-profile performance. I'm sure the kids had a ball. Here is the promotional video:

Now I, out of morbid curiosity, actually watched the Super Bowl halftime show and I barely noticed the participation of these young musicians. I noticed they were there, but I didn't notice them as playing classical music as such. Here, have a listen/look for yourself (I can't embed, so just follow the link):

I'm not a football fan and so the whole thing to me seemed like a parody of something or other. Did you see the kids? There they are, right at the beginning. Chris Martin of Coldplay runs right past them in the first 30 seconds. There is a line of them, head-bopping and playing brightly colored string instruments, leading to the stage. Mind you, you can't really hear what they are playing (just chordal accompaniment anyway), but you can't hear the words Chris Martin (or anyone else) is singing either.

Yes, there they are, two wings on either side of the stage, then they get to move in to provide a visual backdrop to the performance by Chris Martin.

OK, now let's talk about this. Here is Anne Midgette's take on it:
Given the street cred, it probably hardly mattered that the musical component of that involvement was minimal. The young players danced out on stage with Chris Martin at the start of the show, brandishing violins and a few cellos ornately decorated with flags and flowers in the ’70s spirit of the enterprise. By the final set they had abandoned their instruments altogether and were simply singing and clapping along with everyone else — with Dudamel standing behind and between BeyoncĂ© and Martin, looking like just one of the crowd and yet managing to be right at the center of the action. For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Is she right? Speaking as one of those vaunted elitists, no, I don't think so. I think that if I had been part of this group, after getting over the initial thrill I would have been asking what we were playing and how it would be staged and so on. If I had known that this was the final result I would have said thanks but no thanks. Yes, really. I turned down lots of gigs like this in my time. My two basic criteria were a) to get paid and b) to be actually playing classical music.

Here is why this is bad street cred, not good street cred: a group of young classical musicians were invited to be mere stage props at a big sports event at which they played not one note of classical music, but just comped background to a rather dull pop group. That's not street cred, that's an insult to classical music.

Let's look at what Anne Midgette said. She accuses classical music of "vaunted elitism" which means vain boasting. Is this just a stock phrase required by political correctness at the Washington Post? Because if she believes it, it is a strange attitude for someone whose job description is to write about classical music. Does she not consider herself part of the classical music world? Is she pitiably hungry for validation from the pop music world? That is sad!

The whole piece, while seeming to be a positive tribute to a wonderful triumph by some young musicians, is, at a second glance, a kind of subtle smear of classical music. This whole sentence is representative:
For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Ah yes, if we could just get away from those dead white men Beethoven and Shostakovich and take our place on the playing field next to Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, then finally we pathetic classical musicians could find validation. Setting aside for the moment whether the Super Bowl halftime show has anything whatsoever to do with art in any form, let me say this to those who have this kind of attitude about classical music:

Bite me.


David said...

Bryan, I'm with you on the value/impact of this "exploitation/exposure" of YOLA. The LA paper was less enthusiastic in its report than Ms. Midgette:

A couple of things stand out: 1. The YOLA contribution to the music/soundscape was pre-recorded (the lack of bowing coordination in spite of GD's arm waving is noticeable and quite comical). 2. The classical music content in at least two SuperBowl commercials was more authentic exposure for the genre.

The YOLA experience is probably the modern equivalent of Peter T's 1812 Overture commission. I have read that the composer hated the product. In a twist of irony, it is one of his most recognizable creations.

Bah humbug. Bach to Bachauer playing Brahms' PC No. 2

Bryan Townsend said...

David, that link takes us back to the Midgette article?

Yes, I assumed they were lip-synching, but didn't get around to mentioning it.

Yes, and Ravel grew to hate his Bolero as well!

Ah, Brahms as a palate-cleanser...

Jeph said...

I must admit I was excited to hear about the inclusion of the YOLA in the half-time show. I assumed the actual gig would be something sort of dumb and canned like you describe, but the idea that maybe this would plant a seed somewhere (in a child's mind perhaps) was attractive. Question, is the "coolifying" of classical music (as evidenced by the SB, and the marketing and video stuff you've been touching on) going to help it or harm it overall? Do people like this stuff? It seems like the popular culture of the moment is attempting to acknowledge the classical world but has no idea how to engage meaningfully, (or tastefully).

Anonymous said...

Nice attitude Bryan. Good insights into the young and impressionable. :/ That the young orchestra members saw their participation as being a good thing doesn't necessarily follow that their standards of performance are any less than yours are under other circumstances. Dudamel's appearance was an experiment. It had never been done before, and it may never be done again. But he tried and the participation of the young brought some attention to them and the music, at least in a number of high-profile publications... the music that happens to be dying, according to some observers. Some within the field of classical music ARE elitists who think that the classics can't stand a few knocks or two. I happen to believe that the music is stronger than that and that what some are trying to find is a way to develop a new audience for the music. So I feel it's better to try and fail than let the music sink into oblivion because it's not being presented under the most ideal circumstances, at least for the time being. I'm on the side of those who are trying to open up the field to greater exposure and willing to take a few risks to reach a wider audience. I doubt that the members of the orchestra would agree with your Bite Me attitude. I would imagine they're practicing their Beethoven more seriously than ever.

Anonymous said...

you might like this short interview with rachel barton pine.
confirms your theory that many pop/rock musicians love & are inspired by classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Jeph: It is interesting to ponder what the popular music world thinks of the classical. I will keep an eye out for some indicators. But for me the central problem here was simply that no quantity of classical music was allowed to seep into the presentation. Having enthusiastic kids carry around their string instruments as a visual backdrop to a pop singer really doesn't expose anyone to anything.

@Anonymous 1: I appreciate your comment, because it expresses well the counter to my view. By the way, please don't think that my "bite me" was directed at those enthusiastic kids! I think it was clear that it was a comment on Anne Midgette's smear of classical music as being "vaunted elitism". I agree wholeheartedly with your comment that the music is stronger than that! Again, I am not criticizing the young people, or even Dudamel. As you say, an experiment. What I am criticizing is the idea that this sort of thing: demeaning classical music by making the players into spear carriers in the background playing some syncopated chords, helps out the cause of the music in any way whatsoever. If you want to expose people to classical music you have to actually expose them to classical music. This experiment failed to do that.

Oh yes, I think a lot of popular musicians have had considerable exposure to classical music and like it a lot as a result.

Marc Puckett said...

Mr Shah needs to sit down with Allan Kozinn and take a few notes although I don't know if he does actual reviews; anyway, I did enjoy AK's of Paola Prestini's Labyrinth on a different page at WSJ-- he pointed out the elements I'd find problematic without being sneeringly dismissive about 'em (the electronica & recorded sounds take the place of the orchestra, e.g., which connexion, left to myself, I might not have made) & also the ones (melody, emotion, virtuosity) likely to make me want to take a chance on listening.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Marc. I did read the Kozinn article on Paola Prestini's piece. Like all his stuff it was well-written and insightful.

David said...

Bryan, sorry about the faulty link. The LA Times piece is here:

Bryan Townsend said...


Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, and I should have said that this is a better take on the performance, noting both the rush and thrill that the musicians and their friends experienced and the disappointment that they weren't actually allowed to do anything classical.