The Cost of Substituting Taste for Thrills in Classical Music

Most interpretations of classical music, emerging since the second half of the 20th century, are conceptualized regardless of the era of its origin in a 19th century "romantic style." As if everyone is just reading and playing from Lebert & Stark editions -- watch Malcolm Bilson's brilliant "Knowing the Score." Since we live in yet a different era today, the 21st century, with a different and ever-changing set of paradigms, the interpretations of Baroque, Classic, and Romantic music alike turn out to be grotesque imitations of the "romantic style," often performed with acrobatic physical abilities beyond need, expressive no doubt, but essentially ignorant and self indulgent; it often is kitsch, a paste of the past pressed into present form, Classical Chicken M(usi)c Nuggets, ExMix.

There are exceptions of course, but I am talking about the bulk of the concert and recording media experience: The top 10, the top 100 on programs, radio, CDs, and now MP3s. Not to mention the whole event and crossover culture. ("Crossover is Bendover," as my friend Alexey Steele says.) Do we really need to cross over? And it's usually not between art forms but from poetry to pop. Who benefits? Many successful contemporary pianists are third generation impersonators. Honestly, when was the last time you heard a sincerely original or moving thought or emotion on stage? When was the last time you left a classical concert with something so precious that you wanted to keep it, that it became part of your cherished memories? When has the muse last spoken to you at a classical concert and inspired your mind or ignited your soul like the Archaic Torso Apollo's (R.M.Rilke)? I am not talking about having a good time, being impressed by phenomenal abilities, or witnessing a jaw-dropping spectacle.

When naming favorite pianists, connoisseurs list mostly dead people -- how come? What have pianists born in the last 50 years contributed? Who is the most famous pianist today? When did the interesting replace the moving and profound? How did we get from a tradition of taste to a tradition of thrills? Is that not reason for concern? But I am ranting. My favorite pianist alive: Paris Hilton!

"Craving for novelty may end in barbarism, but this postmodern nostalgia transcends any healthy respect for the past: it's a decease all the more sinister because it's unrecognized..."
Jon Savage, 1984