Saturday, April 19, 2014

Elitism and Quality

One of the problems that classical music has these days is that one of the underlying fundamentals of the discipline (and yes, it is partly a discipline) is that achieving high quality in classical music education always smacks of elitism. Talking to some people who have been trying to start a conservatory here, one of the characteristics of Mexican culture, egalitarianism, was holding them back. They wanted to just take everyone who was interested, but if you do that, the ones who lack potential or talent will just hold back the others and you will get nowhere. So they reconciled themselves to auditioning, screening, candidates based on their showing some musical potential.

It is pretty easy to do that. I can't recall if I recounted here my first audition in music. It was when I had applied to enter the School of Music at a West Coast Canadian university. I showed up there one day, but not realizing that I had been scheduled for an audition! I didn't even bring my guitar. So the conductor just dragged me into a room and started playing notes to me on the piano: "sing this back", "now this". He played them in widely different octaves and then may have played pairs of notes and asked me to sing the pair back. He may even have played some chords and asked me if they were major or minor. In any case, I passed with flying colors because I had already been a professional musician, albeit in the pop field, for four years. I played by ear, learned music by ear and had already written forty songs. So that little aptitude test was nothing. But I still started too late to become a virtuoso very easily.

The truth is that the standards in classical music are shockingly high. Perhaps they are high in pop music too, but when I listen to singers there, they rarely sound very accomplished and the videos are often just ludicrously pretentious posturing over a computerized drum track, so, doesn't seem so high quality to me, aesthetically. But to be an outstanding classical musician you have to either have astounding amounts of talent and a lot of luck meeting the right people young, or be born into a privileged part of society, or be born into a family of classical musicians. Because, apart from the willingness to accept a rigorous discipline for many years, you also have to have a huge amount of aptitude, plus money and connections. I didn't have any of these things (well, I do have some aptitude!) so my career was a constant struggle.

Hilary Hahn shows us just what is involved. There isn't any information about her family on Wikipedia, but as she started in a Suzuki violin program at age four at Peabody in Baltimore, one of the most famous music schools in the US, one can assume that her family had cultural capital at least. At ten years of age she was accepted into perhaps the most elite music school in the world, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Actually, according to some figures, it is the most selective higher educational institution in the US. It only accepts enough students to fill out an orchestra and opera company, though added to this are a few composers and keyboard players as well. Total enrollment between 150 and 170. I believe that all students are on full scholarship. I had a girlfriend, a bassoonist, who graduated from Curtis. Their graduates fill the first place chairs in most of the orchestras in the US.

At eleven years, Hilary made her major orchestral debut playing a concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. I'm not sure which one, but she had options, as during her years at Curtis she learned, apart from piles of etudes, twenty-eight concertos! My friend told me that her teacher made her learn a new Vivaldi bassoon concerto every week. Can you imagine how hard these students work? I am reminded of when I spent a summer studying in Salzburg. We had five hours of master class every day. Added to four or five hours of practice, a couple of hours of concert-going, sleeping and eating, that's a full day. One evening I went out to the practice studios to work on the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez for a couple of hours as the next morning I was playing it for Pepe Romero in the master class. On my way in to the studio, I heard a violinist working on a brief section, perhaps four to eight measures, from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto cadenza. At half-tempo. As I left, hours later, he or she was still working on the same passage. The grueling discipline required for the precise mastery of the repertoire is inconceivable unless you have actually done it.

At eighteen years of age, Hilary Hahn released her first album, the kind of thing that many violinists would wait many years to record: a whole album of Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin. A year or so later she released her first recording with orchestra, containing another Mount Everest of the repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I was listening to it the other day and it is far better than merely spectacular: it is profoundly musical.

Hilary Hahn is probably, at age 34, the finest violinist in the world. Technically she can play anything and she has an astonishing musical depth. She had a real gift, but was born into an appropriate family and was able to attend the right school at the right time. Then she worked stupendously hard for many years. And the result is a truly great violinist.

It is fashionable to sneer at anything smacking of "elitism", but this is to sneer at quality. This doesn't stop people from doing it, for lots of self-serving reasons. But the truth is that very, very few people have the aptitude, energy, dedication and discipline to become outstanding musicians. You bet they are elite. But wash away the stain from that word, because it should not have any hint of injustice to it. Anyone who achieves high quality in music has most certainly earned it. No one gets there by accident or by spending their time in night-clubs or watching television.

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