Saturday, September 17, 2016

not educational

I went to some trouble - to be described later - to arrive at Stanford this evening in time for the Brahms program. Advertised as free, it drew a tremendous crowd. The St. Michael Trio, plus additions, played pretty good performances of individual movements from various Brahms chamber pieces, interweaved with an educational lecture by their pianist about Brahms, his life and his music.

Now, it is possible to talk or write about music at a level understandable and interpretable by a lay audience while respecting the integrity and the complexity of the music. Robert Winter, in his old Voyager CD-ROM on Beethoven's Ninth, did it. Rob Kapilow, who gives traveling musically-illustrated lectures on individual works under the rubric "What Makes It Great?", does it, at least in the Vivaldi session that I heard some years ago.

That's one way of doing it. The other way is to dumb it down, to oversimplify and trivialize the music, the composer, and the intelligence of your audience. That's what we heard tonight.

One time I saw red during the lecture was when he "simplified" sonata form down to a level so trivial and meaningless as to make it unintelligible why anyone would bother to write in such a form, let alone Brahms who supposedly raised it to a peak in his Piano Quintet (the opening movement of which they then proceeded to play). So definitive was this work, the man said, that no great piano quintets have been written since. Bang goes Cesar Franck, then, along with Edward Elgar (who'd been earlier quoted praising Brahms' work), and Shostakovich, along with Arensky, Dohnanyi, Bloch, Schnittke ...

Another time I saw red was when he explained Brahms' unpopularity among some people by saying he was pessimistic. Besides trivializing some deeply-felt aversions on the part of people whose opinions deserve respect (Stravinsky, Britten), he contrasted Brahms in this respect with Mozart, whom he described as a composer of cheerful, lighthearted music. (And every time he mentioned Mozart in this context, he played one appropriate snatch of music.)

But it's also trivializing to characterize Mozart this way. Mozart, the author of some of the darkest, most dramatic and even harrowing music in the repertoire, like this and this and this (which I've linked to before) and (remember the opening scene in Amadeus, with the old Salieri screaming Mozart's name in delirium, and the dark, stormy music playing over it? That was) this? Cheerful and lighthearted? You don't know Mozart.

There was a lot more, including the expected tired interpretation of Brahms writing his subsequent music in the throes of unrequited passion for Clara Schumann. (And not even a word about Agathe von Siebold, whose name he actually encoded in his music.) I'd expected to enjoy an evening of Brahms, but I left ready to swear out an arrest warrant for crimes against musical education.

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