Responding to Alex Ross Regarding State of Classical Music in NYC

Dear Alex,

I wanted to comment on your thoughts on the state of classical music, especially as regards Poisson Rouge and new venues.

The reason that LPR is important, and is receiving seemingly endless press, is that it fills a critical need. I feel I have a unique perspective on this since I cross over between jazz, classical, and all manner of American popular music. Classical music is to my mind uniquely stuck in the past, in ways that have almost no parallel in the worlds of art, theater, movies, books. LPR is perhaps an antidote to that tendency.

Does Proust, Mann, Milton, Balzac etc., completely dominate the bookstores? No.

Is Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, or John Ford shown at every Cineplex monthly or weekly? No. Do we see recreations of 18th century court dancing at Lincoln Center and BAM on a weekly basis. No. True that many museums have older art in large part, but you can get in for free to, say, the Met if you like. And what is the musical corollary to MOMA? Imagine if there was a single concert stage, a big, beautiful endowed one, where all they did was modern music!

Why then do the ancients completely dominate the classical music stages? I love and worship Beethoven as much as the next person, but enough is enough. I know no one under 50 who cares much about Mendelsohn, or many other second-tier composers whose works dominate our concert halls, and in fact I know almost no one who cares much about what the Philharmonic does. It is dominated by one class and culture and is not even remotely representative of the feelings, the needs, the passions, the provocations of our great, whirring, wild, unruly country.

But I do not wish to single out the “ancients”. We are cursed, also, by a welter of “new” classical music that leaves the listener wanting to sprint for the exits. Again, much of this music is dominated by a certain class and culture and lacks that most crucial element without which we all wither- SOUL!

Counterpoint occurs…when George Wein seemed to dominate the jazz scene in June along came Michael Dorf in the 90’s with the Knitting Factory Festival. Of course he went bust, so that’s a consideration! Thus comes LPR, counterpoint to Lincoln Center.

It corresponds with a remarkable thaw in the classical world. It is a world that has often felt cold and forbidding to me- until recent times.

I call it a thaw because there are so many new, young groups now who do not approach classical music with quite the formulaic, upper crust stiffness that is historically part of this scene. They approach the music in a more unruly, relaxed way. Groups like Alarm Will Sound, Bang On a Can, Brooklyn Rider, Kronos play extremely serious music but the repertoire they choose, and their means of presenting it, give one the feeling of being invited more to a jazz or folk concert, than a “tails and fur coats” concert. I love seeing the Phil or Vienna play Mahler, ok? But we NEED counterpoint.

How well I remember when Kronos first came on the scene. What a breath of fresh air. That was THIRTY FIVE years ago! These days more and more groups approach classical music as Kronos does, inviting pop, jazz, world music into the mix, but it is only now that New York has a hall that specializes in this world view. (One could include Zankel, I guess, but that is way out of reach for most of us.) How nice that it exists, and how sad that it took that long.

But enough about me… One feels in the “eclectic” music, exemplified by the afore-mentioned artists, a connection to the concerns of the day, to the world around us. Alex, isn’t this what so many of us crave? To hear the world we live in come back to us through sound? Alarm has a way of making new music feel relevant, alive. They connect to the audience and at the same time make tremendous music. More and more classical musicians, perhaps because they secretly want to be rock and roll musicians, want to connect. They are willing to learn to improvise, amplify and distort, to expand their horizons into world music to do so.

The hybrid, or poly-stylistic music of today is not a passing fad- it represents the way we live. Many composers I know have been grappling with this “hybrid” style since the 70’s. In some ways one can trace the efforts of Riley, Glass, Reich, etc. to Bang On a Can, through Alarm Will Sound, etc. The influences of African, Indian, jazz, rock are giving classical music youth, soul, vigor. Of course not all efforts are equal, and plenty of mediocre hybrids exist, but that is inevitable in any era. One peeve of mine is that there is still so little conversation between jazz and classical. This dialogue consumes me more and more.

It is no accident that some of the more popular composers of the day make music that has…a beat! For thousands of years humans have made music with grooves. It would be nonsensical to expect modernism to do away with it all. As more and more variations and hybrids proliferate, more outlets will appear, whether small non-profits, or venues like LPR. I truly believe that the future of classical music depends on these smaller outlets, just as the future of jazz has always depended on the small clubs. This is where the dirty work, the searching, the growing is done. The major developments in jazz are NOT reflected at Lincoln Center Jazz, trust me, but at places like 55 Bar, Jazz Gallery, and countless out of the way door gigs in Brooklyn.

It feels a bit devastating to us composers that so few outlets currently exist, as compared to the volume of music being created. We need MORE places where a listener can relax, pay only $15 to get in, have a drink, stand at the bar afterwards and greet friends. We need more venues for whom jazz and classical are equals, not adversaries. We need more venues where Black, White, Indian, African, Chinese music sit side by side. Of course rich white people are the ones sustaining the Met and Lincoln Center because it serves their tastes and interests. Soon enough though I would love to see philanthropy flow more towards what is actually happening on the ground, in the minds of those who hold the present and future, not the past.

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