Classical music is dead. So began a column encountered recently, by some writer
beyond the mountains hiding behind the generic name of Jones. The premise of
his morose words is that the giants have fled, and that they have taken their
art with them. The giants in this instance are Herbert von Karajan, who died
last year, and Leonard Bernstein, who left us last October.
Nobody with a working pair of ears takes this kind of guff seriously. Classical
music has died, with commendable regularity, throughout civilized history. It
died, attended by great public sorrowing, with Handel in 1759, with Beethoven
in 1827, with Verdi in 1901. It died less publicly noticed, with Mozart in 1791
(as we will not be allowed to forget in the anniversary year to come) and, most
tragically of all, when Schubert’s unfinished life ended in 1828. “Every day a
little death,” runs a lyric in a Stephen Sondheim show, and Sondheim is one of
several living proofs that music lives on, and gloriously.
The passing of Karajan and Bernstein happens, in fact, to be especially
inadequate testimony to the demise of music. Both were, themselves, capable and
confessed guardians of a dead art. Bernstein himself admitted as much more than
once. Karajan would have done the same if he had had Bernstein’s gift for the
public statement. Music’s particular glory has been its power of self-renewal,
and it has possessed that power since the time of the ancient Greeks. It feeds
upon itself to nourish its continual powers of growth and of change. It
preserves its own corpses with immaculate skill. Karajan was adept at this, and
so was Bernstein. The deaths of embalmers and pall-bearers do not, as writer
Jones would have us believe, spell out the death of the civilization they
What this writer mistakes for death, actually, is nothing more than the latest
stage in a pattern that runs through all the arts at all times. The phenomenon
of the charismatic conductor, engaged in a two-way mystic relationship (with
the music and with the audience) did, indeed, come to its long-drawn-out end
with the passing of these two masters of the podium. Already, in their time, a
rebirth of classical music had taken place in the presence of another species
of conductor. Rather than placing his own podium manner at the center of the
performance, this new breed relinquishes some of the spotlight to the music
itself. Some do it with a great show of concern for the “authentic” sounds of
music of the past. Others stay with the traditional sounds of the symphony
orchestra, and accomplish their new-fangled results though the force of their
It is the pastime of the media to replace fallen giants with their latter-day
clones. On Public Radio last week there was a serious and extended discussion
of who would be the next Aaron Copland; similar discussions in past months were
similarly concerned with “the next Bernstein.” These discussions, in both
cases, missed one most important point. There is no need for another Bernstein
or another Copland. These giants themselves fought the battles: for American
music, for young American conductors. Why reenact these struggles, when the
fruits of victory are already at hand? (The Copland replacements decided upon,
if you care, were Elliott Carter and John Adams.)
The easiest refutation for the notion of classical music’s death, of course, is
to direct our attention to those many who stand in living disproof. This being
the season of list-making, therefore, here is a handy list of ten guardians of
the future of music. It is not, please note, the one definitive top-ten
listing, but it’s a start. They are listed in no order except the way they
first came to mind.
[*] bo. Evgeny Kissin [B] The 19-year-old Soviet whizbang has served
irrefutable notice that the age of the musicianly romantic pianist has
recommenced. Unlike the torrent of flashy fingerwork paraded on and off our
concert stages in recent years, this sobersided, fiendishly talented youngster
plays real music. Check out the RCA album of his Carnegie Hall debut if you
still don’t believe.
[*]bo. Simon Rattle [B] Now 35 and, thus, safely out of the prodigy category,
Rattle has redefined the role of symphonic conductor in two ways. First, he has
taken hold of the cultural growth of his community (Birmingham) and has gone
most of the way to establish the city as a major British arts venue. Second,
his own versatility (Bach, Gershwin, Stravinsky, etc.) sounds the final knell
of the notion of a separating wall beween serious and pop.
[*]bo. James Levine [B] Not the greatest, but merely the most important of
traditional conductors, he has redefined opera — in his own Metropolitan and
in all houses — as a musical balance of singer and orchestra. Even when
results onstage are the despair of singing-buffs, he has made opera musically
valid once again.
[*]bo. Peter Sellars [B] Phenomenally interesting at all times, even at his
brattiest, Sellars has redefined the whole realm of performance art as a close
interweaving: music as drama as music.
[*]bo. Carlos Kleiber [B] No, the spectacle of the mysterious, unapproachable,
perfectionist conductor is not quite dead. Kleiber has achieved legend status
for the marvelous strength and clarity of his performance, for the narrowness
of his repertory (a fabulous opera conductor with only six operas in his
intellectual luggage) and for his penchant for cancelling when matters are not
to his liking. Like Maria Callas a generation ago, his stupendous performances
suggest that his idiosynacracies are worth putting up with.
[*]bo. Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina [B] Europe’s greatest composers,
Soviet masters of a wide range of expression, mostly abrasive and all of it
communicative. Schnittke’s Quartets and the Gubaidulina “OPffertorium,” on
records, are proof enough that there are still masterpieces to be created.
[*]bo. John Adams [B] A crossover darling, perhaps, but Adams’ major
contribution has been to compose thoroughly modern, approachable music within
traditional frameworks (including grand opera).
[*]bo. The Kronos Quartet [B] Like Adams, they are poised on the cusp of that
mythical barrier between serious and pop. What they play (Reich, Hendrix, a
medieval motet) they play with classical strength and depth. They make new
music matter, and that is a crucial accomplishment.
[*]bo. Stephen Sondheim [B] Like all the greatest artists, he forces upon us a
rethinking of artistic categories, and he bestrides the boundaries with assured
[*]bo. Thomas Hampson [B] The young American baritone has been opera’s latest
glory. (Check out his “Don Giovanni” on records.) Intelligent, versatile,
phenomenally endowed, he could be the cornerstone of opera’s next, eagerly
awaited golden age.
Hardly a pallbearers’ list, wouldn’t you agree?

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