Letter to the Editor: Putting a Star on the Stage

RE: Steve Metcalf on Putting People In Seats

Some thoughts on the subject.

Times change and kids don’t waltz or minuet much anymore, so some of the social necessity of classical music is no longer there. For example: Seventeen Magazine dropped its regular classical music coverage in 1957. It used to list “must have” string quartets, etc.

Anyway, the point I would like to make is about the “star” composer and why he or she ain’t around no more. One could argue that this discussion of classical music concerns the United States only, as France has its star composer—Boulez—and other countries have a very different view of what we are calling “classical music”.

Stravinsky was perhaps the last big international star composer. Yet his “star” as a social icon encompassed not just his compositions but was based on his wonderful writings and observations on the music scene, as well as his public persona as a conductor/performer. Stravinsky had genius, charm, and wit and could express it. Ned Rorem excepted, I don’t know any successful composers who have revealed themselves capable of filling those literary shoes.

Most of what passes for composition writing these days is simply self-promotion, and people see right through it.

Of course if you’re a star, you don’t need self promotion!

5 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: Putting a Star on the Stage

  1. Chris Becker

    Stravinsky certainly wrote works that were designed for self-promotion. His piece for Woody Herman’s band for instance is – well, I really can’t even listen to it. I find it unlistenable. When I first heard it (quite awhile ago) I wondered why he even wrote it. After awhile I figured it out – he composed it to promote himself and his work. No big deal.

    Does Ebony Concerto negate Socrate? Or Les noces? I don’t think so. Is it hard for me to listen to Stravinsky without thinking about how badly he treated his wife (not his mistress) and kids? At least I don’t have any illusions about the man and his personal life.

    The trauma of having to abandon Russia at the end of the First World War no doubt shaped Stravinsky’s personality which was, by many accounts, not exactly pleasant. “Litigious” might be a polite way of describing his less than admirable traits. Again, does this mean we can’t admire much of his music or his writings with Robert Craft? No. We should instead see him as a complex personality – but not an icon or myth we composers should try to aspire to. The circumstances that made him a “star” might have less to do with his “wit” and winning personality etc. than with his own desire be a “star” and willingness to do what it took to be one.

    Any artist (all of us) involved in large-scale performances has to enter a political arena. How we choose to engage it is up to each of us.

    And we will all stumble while doing so – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Finally, not to back pedal, but I don’t think my low opinion of Ebony Concerto is the only valid opinion of it.

    Reply
  2. dalgas

    Re: Stravinsky
    I’ve been more than happy listening to the Ebony Concerto for a lot of years now. (And Socrate is Satie.) Stravinsky was a great self-promoter, no doubt, but more often than not with an original and creative spark to back it up. — Steve Layton

    Reply
  3. Chris Becker

    Whoops. Sorry for the mix up. Oedipus Rex was the piece I should have name dropped. I need a proof reader…

    My issue is with talking about Stravinsky in a way that ignores his less than attractive qualities. And assuming that it was his positive qualities (“wit” and “charm”) that brought him the fame that he acheived. I think he (and all of us for that matter) and that time period (and our own) is more complicated than is described in my post and certainly the short essay I initially responded to. By looking into and talking about these less than pleasant things, we might end up with an even deeper appreciation of Stravinsky, his music and ourselves.

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    I do appreciate the comments on Stravinsky but my main point referred to this part of Steve Metcalf’s article–

    “The classical world desperately needs a few living composers who are genuine culture heroes, who could credibly turn up on Letterman or Extra! once in a while. It has none. John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov may have a shot, but they’re not there yet.”

    My point is that composers can only become “stars” if they are also widely known as something other than a composer.

    Reply
  5. Frank J. Oteri

    [Ed. Note: The following response to this discussion somehow got lost in my email. But as it still timely, here it is. - FJO]

    Letter to the Editor Start with the iPod (and their owners)

    Re: Putting People In Seats

    What are the two things that today’s university music student listens to?

    Their iPods and the music they play in their lessons or in ensembles, which is generally not contemporary music (unless it is a wind symphony). Their iPods consist of not just the MTV pop music, but similar style bands generally made up of guitars and a drum set. I myself have an extensive collection of what many people call indie. However, I still enjoy Mahler and Stockhausen, contrary to the mass percentage other students. “This is music?” a fellow student said to me after hearing John Luther Adams’s “Triadic Iteration Lattices” (the movement from Strange and Sacred Noise for 4 hand-crank sirens). Then I let them hear David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing. And immediately a smile jumped to his face, “This is sweeeeeeeet!” This brings me to the real point of this letter:

    If we are so concerned with the declining audiences then why is there so much rejection and disgust toward composers like Daniel Bernard Roumain? Why is there disgust at all with people trying something new? At least there is an attempt to increase awareness and concert attendance. Do we need to immediately write them off? Is it about the composer’s self-promotion, or are we in need of an audience badly enough that we should embrace this style because it has opened us to a wider audience?

    Now, not everyone has rejected his music, but several articles ago there were some very negative comments directed toward Roumain’s compositions and style. It appears that he is, at least, trying to blend the pop-culture with the classical ideas we are trying to keep. It may not be as complicated as Ferneyhough, or as significant as Debussy, but it is much more accessible to the younger crowd. Who are we trying to bring into the concert halls, the 60-80 year olds, or an eccentric younger audience? If the eccentric audience wants to hear K-Fed maybe we ought to give them something close. Maybe not that extreme, but right now, at least DBR is giving it a shot.

    Maybe all we need is a little groove.

    —Brian Archinal

    Reply

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