Amidst all the furor during this election season, it has been easy to forget that the tiny world of classical music has its own battles to fight. For a few days, COVID-19 has not been top of mind, even as cases in the United States have reached all-time highs that increase on a daily basis. Few have been paying attention to the stock market, even though the delay in getting election results should be an indicator that nothing is normal. We have sputtered to find ways to entertain and amuse ourselves as we look for diversions to alleviate our ennui.
Two items on the musical front have caught my attention over the past couple of weeks, one somewhat frivolous and the other potentially serious.
In Slate on October 24, Chris White posted an article entitled “Beethoven Has a First Name.” The premise is that the general acceptance of composers being identified by only their surname perpetuates the bias of a sexist and racist hierarchy. He cites Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartók as examples of composers referred to by their last names, and then Alma Mahler, Florence Price, Henry Burleigh, and Caroline Shaw as among those identified by their full names. I wonder what the difference is between the first and second group? Could it be that the former contains those who have become iconic while the latter comprises either unknown or recent composers?
Schumann is a great example. His wife, Clara, was a distinguished pianist who also composed. Her music is seldom heard, except for the theme from a set of variations by Brahms. Mr. White would not be pleased that I have identified the composer of numerous great works without using his first name. There is no question that Schumann, like Mendelssohn, needs the clarification. (See what I did there?) When two composers have the same last name, at least one of them needs to be spelled out in full to avoid confusion.
What occurs in other industries when it comes to identifying participants? In sports, athletes are almost always referred to by surname, except when two or more have the same last name. It would be impossible to keep up with the numerous Rodríguezes in baseball, for example. Politicians are easily recognized by using only the last name, unless the name is shared among more than one prominent figure.
Personal recognition and public perception of a name determines how we identify others. I really do not think that race, gender, or ethnicity has anything to do with it. Whenever I get a review, inevitably my full name will be mentioned right at the outset of the article. But in the headline as well as the main body of the piece, I will be referred to by last name only. Why waste two perfectly good syllables when you do not have to?
Major conductors of past generations have always been identified with a mononym. It is hard for me to imagine referring to Toscanini, Stokowski, and Bernstein by their full names. Alsop’s first name may draw more attention simply because the public is not yet used to women as music directors. It is interesting, though, that when most of us mention Marin, we use her first name, usually without the last one.
Speaking of conductors, the other topic that has caused some heated debate has to do with music directors, specifically whether or not we still need them in this day and age. As we progress through the ninth month of corona fatigue, the heads of orchestras have been strangely silent for the most part. I have wondered what they could and should be doing.
Some of them have been able to get to their home orchestras to lead mostly virtual concerts. Others have been prevented from entering the country due to travel restrictions. When I began writing about this time in our history, I argued that we needed to think more locally, utilizing the talent that already exists in our given communities. It would save a lot of money, give some musicians an opportunity they might not have otherwise, and send a strong statement to the public.
This has not happened. Somehow, the voices from afar have continued to be more desirable, even though it has been hard for me to understand the rationale. We do need to be hopeful, but how does attempting to retain the original artists for a given concert square with what almost assuredly would be a program change due to the smaller forces being deployed?
I wondered what I would have done if I was still leading an orchestra as its music director. This took me back to defining what that the role is. The artistic head of an organization used to be in control of virtually every aspect of its operations. After all, in America, if something goes wrong, the blame falls to the person at the top, even if he or she had nothing to do with a particular decision. Whether selecting musicians who will become members of the ensemble, putting the puzzle of a season together, or raising money for the orchestra, the music director had been an unassailable force in the past.
Times have changed. More and more we are seeing the performing musicians take a leadership role in everyday matters of orchestral life. Other decisions are driven by marketing departments. Often, the music director has nothing to do with programs other than the ones he or she conducts. Music directors spend around one quarter or maybe one third of the season, at most, with their own orchestras.
That last figure is based on those orchestras that have fifty-two-week seasons. Smaller organizations usually see the music director more often, at least by percentage of orchestra services. These music directors have a distinct advantage when contemplating what occurs now and in the future. They are more directly involved with the day-to-day operations.
Perhaps it is time to consider replacing the music director with the titled position of chief conductor or principal conductor as it exists in many European and Asian orchestras. This requires a new way of thinking, one that is less about the orchestra’s sonic personality and more about how it presents its image to the public. Mind you, I don’t like it, but it certainly seems like this is the way things are proceeding.
In a few days, I will lead a concert with the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis, which will be recorded and broadcast to a virtual audience. This will be my first indoor performance experience since February. Hopefully I will feel comfortable in this setting. All precautions seem to be in place, but with COVID cases increasing, one can never be too careful.
On a lighter note, I wound up watching the first episode of the old Peter Gunn series the other night. It is unusual for the music to be remembered more than the show, but Henry Mancini’s then-progressive use of jazz materials was jaw-dropping. And look at the roster of greats that played in the combo heard throughout each episode: Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Pete Candoli, the Nash brothers, and Ronnie Lang. Most incredible was the name of the pianist, heard but not seen. It was John Williams in his early days of studio work.
There are a few bright spots in this dark time.