Style vs Substance

Classical performers are increasingly concerned with their looks – but isn’t it supposed to be about the music?

Were I to walk out on stage and perform a Beethoven piano sonata dressed in a technicolour suit, with an outrageous coiffure (admittedly a challenge given my genetic disposition for baldness) and a liberal application of face paint, would the music sound any different?

If a musician rips a couple of holes in their jeans and recounts a few expletive-ridden anecdotes between movements does the music acquire an immediacy and relevance hitherto lacking for the modern-day concert-goer?

Clearly the rational answer to these questions is no. And yet it is difficult to deny that the importance assigned to a performer’s image and extramusical persona is ever increasing within the classical music industry. We see more and more performers whose appearance and attitude are significant factors in their popularity, and in some cases, the very foundation of their careers.

The crux of the matter lies of course in that word industry. Beleaguered record labels and concert promoters worldwide rely on ever more attractive and provocative branding to sell their wares, and many performers follow suit in an effort to stand out in a congested field.

But in paying so much attention to appearances, are we not losing sight of what we came to hear in the first place? I’m not suggesting for a minute that one should not feel free to say, wear and do anything one likes on stage. But at what point does the musician’s deportment begin to distract, and therefore detract from the musical experience?

The very word performer suggests an element of theatricality, and in a sense the interpretation of a musical score is indeed a thespian art. But this is no sideshow – in the silence before the first note is played the curtain rises and the musician then proceeds to act out the inner drama at the core of the composition in question. The theatre is inherent in the musical narrative and does not rely on superficial contrivances. The noblest and highest practitioners of our art are those whose sole intention is to be a conduit between composer and listener. In this context all extramusical concerns are superfluous and meaningless. Inevitably the interpreter’s own personality will shine through, imprinting their unique stamp not with the aid of extraneous gestures and flashy costumes, but through sheer mastery of their instrument and profound understanding of the musical script.

The necessity of attracting a new audience remains however. In addition to sexing up classical music’s image, orchestras and ensembles incorporate pop culture into their programming to entice a broader demographic to their performances. There is something about the sight of our best symphony orchestras performing video game music to balance their books, which I find a tad depressing! Yet with backs to the wall and forced to justify their existence in financial terms, such are the strategies to which many ensembles are obliged to resort. It is hoped that first-time concert-goers who come to hear their favourite film score or the latest hyped-up hipster soloist might then be persuaded to attend a more conventional concert. Thus, in addition to attracting a crowd, these populist programs are also audience-building exercises. Personally I find it a stretch of the imagination to believe that having heard the Super Mario Brothers theme played by a symphony orchestra, the next logical step might be to satiate one’s curiosity as to what a Mahler Symphony sounds like, but I would be very glad to be proved wrong!

Great music has the power to kindle our very souls and inspire awe at the creative potential of the human mind. As with most worthy pursuits, the enjoyment and appreciation to be taken from music is proportional to the effort made to understand it. A populous intent on quick and easy entertainment is at odds with the complex beauty of classical music and no amount of sensational publicity or on-stage antics will change that. It is an indictment of society at large that great art requires any endorsement at all.

The music profession is a complicated and paradoxical environment in which to operate, where artistic ideals are always compromised to an extent by practical and financial realities. When the powers that be embrace and champion the fashionable over the genuine, it becomes increasingly problematic for all concerned to emerge with integrity intact.

Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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Style vs Substance
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