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The Crisis of Classical Music 14

img  Tobias

The opening statement
To the „purists“, the crisis of classical music is no mystery. While others are analyzing, pondering, lamenting or discussing, it’s all very clear to them. Things were good in the 50s, 60s and 70s, they claim, and hey, they were even pretty cool in the 80s. It all started going wrong when people were subjected to and mass-hypnotised by Pop, Rock, Hip Hop and Techno and when TV content strayed from James Joyce-lectures and airings of the complete “Ring” to programes about dating and hemorrhoids. Mass Media, they argue, are to blaim for a gradual (but frighteningly fast) decline in average intelligence. A simple question sums up their creed: How can a music as divine as that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven ever exist amidst the fast food of the 21st century? But what angers them ever more, what really raises their blood level, are those so-called cross-over stars: Musicians who have nestled comfortably in between the genres, selling themselves to the modern marketing machine, using sex to raise attention and downgrading the holy grail of the last 200 years to an easily digestible potpourri. Three of them are to blame in particular, the purists scream with bloodred faces. Let’s have a look at them, shall we?

The Accused
Katherine Jenkins:
Jenkins is an easy target, simply for being too drop-dead gorgeous for the Classical world. Even supposedly “serious” magazines have raved about her physical qualities, which is why we are not ashamed at all of abusing her lovely portrait as an eyecatcher to this article. On the other hand, looks aren’t everything. Germany’s most-read Music Magazine WOM, who described Katherine Jenkin’s live performance in Cardiff in early 2006 as disgraceful, had to admit, that she looked great – off the stage. While she was on,.her superficial baroque look raised more than one eyebrow and so did her purportedly anaemic delivery and a string of wooden reactions to situations demanding spontaneity. Jenkins has by now released four albums, on which she has served a fairly obvious coctail of Classical arias, Pop songs, Musical extracts and Folk music from her native Wales. Her voice has been described as “poetic and angeline” by her fans and as a “natural disaster” (this is not a direct quote, but would actually have to be considered as one of the nicer comments) by her critics.

Andre Rieu:

Andre Rieu’s fame seemed to have reached its peak, when his medley of 1001 waltzes outsold even the most fashionable pop albums, turning into one of the Netherland’s best-selling records ever. In fact, the man who looks like a bizarre version of Valmont from a 60s version of “Dangerous Liaisons”, had only just got started. First, he took Germany in a storm, appearing on all major shows and touring the country until even the most remote corner could spell his name correctly and then he conquered the USA. In the concert movie “Andre Rieu in New York”, he plays to a crowd of thousands in the city’s “Radio City Music Hall”, earning his first standing ovation only three pieces into the show and driving the masses into ecstacy.

Andrea Bocelli:
If the two first entries didn’t enrage you yet, Andrea surely will. Italian-born Bocelli (if the name doesn’t ring a bell: He’s the blind tenor) is the most terrifying singer of them all - if you ask the purists, that is. According to them, Bocelli has a weak voice which needs amplification on stage (meaning: a microphone), uses cheap emotions to seduce faint-hearted ladies, sings a repertoire as riskque as butter on your morning toast and spices up his otherwhise deadeningly boring concerts by filling them with intonational mistakes. Entire theses have been written about his allegedly horrifying intonation and forums are replete with heated discussions between those who admire and those who hate him. The former seemingly outweighing the latter: All along, he has recorded a mighty 18 records and keeps a busy live schedule.

The Charges
The arguments of the purists are clear: By consciously and deliberately keeping the level of their music so low as to be understood by everybody, these so-called artists are tarnishing Classical music’s reputation. They are compromising on essential parameters of the music, changing its intrinsic values and its soul. The result of their endeavours has nothing to do with the intentions of the composer and the interpretation lacks any connection to the score. The only guideline for their actions is money, the reason for their success the stupidity and unambitious nature of their audience, who is merely served what it expects. Thus, once a listener is confronted with “real” classical music, he or she will be unable to appreciate its beauty, will feel it to be unnatural and complicated. If Classical musicians, so the reasoning goes, wanders off into pop territory, they are destroying chances for those of their colleagues who are trying to make an earnest living through real talent, hard work and facing intellectual, personal and historical challenges, as well as the financial hardships of a life on the fringes.

The Defence
The entire argument falls to pieces in the very first few minutes of Andre Rieu’s concert. First of all, this is not a solo show, but an orchestra performance led by Rieu and featuring guests and solos from the ensemble. When three tenors are asked to come on stage for a round of arias, they earn just as much applause as their boss does . and the latter gladly grants them their spot in the limelight. Rieu does not claim to be on the “serious” side of things. He wants to entertain people and to him, this means stirring up their emotions, instead of probing their cerebral capacities. With this aim, he is no different from many of the great composers and artists from the history of music. Actually, mainstream music has always relied on “feelings” and Rieu bathes in this knowledge with a simple, but extremely effective performance. Is it kitch? Absolutely. On the other hand, he delivers it in an entirely unpretentious manner. Unless you’re keen on hating him, you will enjoy his concerts.

We have defended Katherine Jenkins before and we will continue to do so, as long as she keeps churning out albums as effective as her first four ones. While we called them “obvious” earlier and would even like to add that they are predictable, they are also absolutely unique. Jenkins can’t help the fact that she looks great and to accuse her of this is all the more ridiculous, as the purists have written page-long love-letters themselves about the beauty of their objects of desire (the only difference being, that quite a lot of them have slightly obscure tastes). What remains is the accusation that Jenkins does not have an opera voice. And, to be quite honest, we couldn’t agree more. From top to bottom, Katherine is an artist placed in the tradition of pop, singing songs from the outer limits of the classical world. Her album takes listeners to a place where this poses no problem, but instead gives listeners a warm feeling inside. The question is less, whether her music is high-art, but whether or not that matters.

The case of Andrea Bocelli is different, because – which differentiates him from the other two accused – he does pursue a career as a “serious” Classical musician. Even his website clearly distinguishes between his “pop” records and his “classical” ones. The thing is that the line is a hard one to draw. Take his “christmas” album, for example. While on the outside, this appears to clearly fall into the latter category, its entire production and ambition points towards the former. On the other hand, his latest offering “Amore” is so far off current trends and radio preferences, that it would seem absurd to label it “popular”. To gauge Bocelli is a difficult task for anyone interested in doing so with objectivity in mind and has probably never truly been attempted. While it is a fact that he lacks vocal power and precision, the sweetness and fluency of his singing carry a meaning beyond mere performance aspects. Regardless of whether he is a Classical musician worthy of the big stages, can a voice which moves millions be guilty of destroying an entire art form?

The Judgement: Reverse the case!
We don’t think so. Coming to think of it, the whole idea is too laughable to be considered at all. What the purists are ignoring is the following:

•    Just like the “great” composers wrote for varying occasions, there has always been a need for music to suit different aspects of life. Emotions are not a byproduct of the human body, no matter how shallow they may sometimes appear on the outside.
•    What you call it, is of no real interest. Is it Classical music? Operette? Musical? Pop? At the end of the day, these are mere terminologies, which have very little to do with the actual music.
•    Every artist should pursue the goals which are fit for him. All three “accused” are world class at what they do and to ask of them to start doing it differently or to claim they were mere marketing products is cynical at best.
Actually, without actively wanting this, the cross-over artists are helping “serious” musicians – even though the effects are often only indirect. But it goes without saying that the success of someone like Anna Netrebko is benefitial to other opera singers, who will follow in her slipstream (even though they will probably bemoan her almighty shadow). If their “pop-approach” is helping in bringing the beauty of Classical music closer to the masses, then there will always a certain percentage of listeners who will go from there to a deeper experience.

This case needs to be reversed. If there were less negativism towards the stars and more positive attention to the underground (which is being sadly neglected and scoffed at by the purists), then this duality between “entertainment” and “”art” would create an irresistible pull, even for the mainstream media.

What is destroying the world of classical music is the fortress mentality of the so-called “true fans”. We will not start accusing them, however, but instead politely ask them to open their mind. The rest will surely follow.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Katherine Jenkins
Homepage: Andre Rieu
Homepage: Andrea Bocelli

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