Reading the review of a TV programme about botched plastic surgery, one paragraph caught my eye:
“An elegant American pianist described how she had arrived for auditions, and the ‘fat’ on her upper arms had grossed out her producers.” She got a plastic operation, but: “It went wrong, and she has difficulty playing the piano.”
Just a few words, but they tell the whole story of a cultural catastrophe. For playing classical music is an art distinctly different from pole dancing, nude or semi-nude modelling, striptease and porn films.
One can see how having a tasty body would be a job requirement for a woman trying to excel in those genres. There’s every inducement for those young ladies to submit to the scalpel in the hope of removing, reducing or rearranging any obstacles in the way of a successful career.
But a classical musician purveys an aural rather than visual art representing both the highest achievement of our culture and its most eloquent expression. Therefore its practitioners need a set of skills that require both more and less than what pole dancers need.
That a musician must have virtuoso technique goes without saying, and most professionals possess that. But that’s only a start. A performer must also have the sensitivity, intellect, emotional makeup and near-osmotic intuition to grasp and then communicate the sublime insights of some of history’s greatest men.
Performers boasting this combination of qualities are now practically nonexistent. But that’s no problem because also practically nonexistent are audiences that can appreciate musical performances on such terms.
That knocks out one leg of the tripod propping up a performance: the symbiosis of composer, performer and listener. With that leg gone, the structure collapses – but concert halls still need to be filled, with a new type of audience listening to a new type of musician.
The task of putting bums on seats has proved easy, what with the path to commercial success already signposted by popular arts, including those I’ve mentioned above and especially pop music.
Impresarios, concert organisers and record producers used to sell their wares on the basis of their charges’ musicianship. They knew that the greater the musician, the more he’ll be appreciated and the higher will be the commercial return.
However, since these days the public en masse can’t tell a proper musician from, say, Lang Lang, high talent no longer guarantees high profits.
Quite the opposite: a real musician works hard and he demands that his listeners do the same. And for the listeners to work hard, they should know how – they should have acquired the necessary tools. That takes a serious effort over a lifetime.
In addition to attending hundreds (thousands?) of concerts and listening to (tens of?) thousands of recordings, a real listener prepares himself by learning about the culture that produced the masterpieces, reading up on musical theory to acquire at least a general notion of structure and harmony, honing his aesthetic perception by studying other arts, learning the history of music, analysing the aesthetic, philosophical and religious aspects of the composers’ inspiration.
When such a listener finds himself in a concert hall, he’s not there to be entertained. He’s there to concentrate on every note almost as much as the performer does.
After the last note has sounded, the listener is left drained, engrossed in thought, repeating in his mind every poignant phrase. Some of those phrases stay with him for ever. The high pleasure of this experience requires a high effort – but then so does anything else worth having.
Today’s typical audiences are unwilling to make this effort, and they’ll shun a performance that demands it. They attend concerts to be entertained, and it’s to that need that concert organisers appeal. And, since to the average listener all performances sound the same, provided the musician can play all the right notes in the right sequence and at the required speed, other aspects come to the fore.
Performers are promoted all the way to stardom by extra-musical characteristics, physical appearance prime among them. Specifically female musicians are selected on the standards not fundamentally different from those applied to pole dancers. They should have sexy flesh and reveal as much of it as possible without being charged with public indecency.
Just look up on YouTube performances by, say, Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Joanna MacGregor, Nicola Bendetti, Alison Balsom (nicknamed ‘crumpet with a trumpet’, her promos more often suggest ‘a strumpet with a trumpet’ instead) et al.
You won’t hear any musical revelations, but you’ll see much bare flesh. While appreciating the differences between such playing and pole dancing, one can still feel that similarities are becoming more prominent.
Reviewers realise this better than anyone else, hence the content of their articles. Thus for instance runs a recent review of a piano recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of London’s top venues:
“She is the most photogenic of players: young, pretty, bare-footed; and, with her long dark hair and exquisite strapless dress of dazzling white, not only seemed to imply that sexuality itself can make you a profound musician, but was a perfect visual complement to the sleek monochrome of a concert grand…”
I feel sorry for the “elegant American pianist”, who mutilated herself trying to satisfy today’s exacting requirements. Of course the simpler and less taxing solution to the problem of imperfect upper arms would have been to cover them with a proper concert dress. But that would have left the public feeling cheated.
One can’t help recalling some sublime women musicians of the past, such as Myra Hess, Maria Yudina, Clara Haskil, Marcelle Meyer, Marguerite Long. None of them would have won a Miss Hull beauty pageant. And what do you know, the public didn’t care.
P.S. On an unrelated subject, women’s curling strikes me as one of the few Winter Olympic sports that have a clear practical application. It develops a knack for a woman to get down on her hands and knees and scrub the floor. For that reason, and I won’t even mention other possible uses of this talent, curling ought to be boycotted by all those who, like me, resent such a utilitarian view of womankind.