Where Has Curiosity Gone?

Where Has Curiosity Gone?
September 19, 2014 leonard slatkin

During the summer months, music festivals abound all over the globe. Some are fully professional and others are distinguished by their educational activities. I don’t have a preference, but in recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged from the latter.

When I was a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School back in the mid ‘60s, a variety of outstanding performances took place, many with artists who were unknown to me at the time. In addition, the Aspen Institute had one of the finest lecture series in the world. Those of us who came to study took advantage of all the offerings, helping ourselves to a wonderful banquet of cultural and intellectual treats.

After each, there would usually be a small group of music students who headed to a pizza joint to discuss what we heard, whether musical or spoken. Huge debates took place as to the merit of each event, and although we did not know it at the time, much of this dialogue would shape our thinking as we matured.

It did not matter who was playing or giving a lecture. We were all hungry for knowledge. And sometimes a performance could actually change the way we thought. I hated the harpsichord until I heard a recital by Fernando Valenti. The lieder of Hugo Wolf held little interest until Adele Addison presented an evening of these songs. Mortimer Adler held sway over an incredible roster of speakers, some contradicting one another on the same evening.

I give this background because these days, things have changed radically, not only at this festival but all around the globe. In music, what we now see is specifically tied to the students’ interests, which are, sadly, quite limited. In Aspen, I had the pleasure of working with Garrick Ohlsson in a performance of the Second Concerto by Chopin. We had a fairly full house, at least for the first half of the program.

When I walked onstage after intermission, presenting Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, there were many empty places in the audience. The majority of the piano students had left, having heard what they came for. Most went off to practice, some to eat and others to enjoy the pleasures of the Rockies. The Strauss is not exactly standard repertoire and does not appear on programs regularly.

An opportunity to hear one of the masterpieces of orchestral invention had been missed by many. I suppose that a certain work ethic can be understood and that Garrick was giving a kind of performance master class, but for me the bottom line was that so many were uninterested in anything outside their field of endeavor.

Context becomes everything, whether at an individual event or throughout life. As I celebrated my 70th birthday recently, my thoughts have turned to this ever-diminishing world of curiosity. By the time one gets to my age, it is certainly possible to eliminate some facets of repertoire, cultural ideology and political thought. There is not enough room left to absorb too much more. But as a student, one must be a sponge, taking in all that there is.

Much can be discarded, but if you have not experienced it in the first place, life will be a bit emptier as you continue your journey. Perhaps I am wasting some time here, as most of the young people I am speaking of will probably never read these words.

Specialization comes later, after you have found your voice. Experiencing what you have not heard or read opens up a world that can change your life. Give the cat some credit. Curiosity might have killed it, but ignoring what is out there can be even more limiting and harmful. Don’t forget that the cat still has eight more lives and plenty of time to discover so many things.

Published on The Huffington Post, September 19, 2014