Saturday, April 3, 2010

No Sanctuary?

By now I should be sufficiently used to both the style and substance of Norman Lebrecht's writing that I would probably be better off disregarding it. I also know that he has staunch defenders, including one who submitting a comment that made the following assertion:

Norman Lebrecht is a good writer. He may not report facts correctly, and he may not be able to predict the future, but he can certainly put compelling sentences and paragraphs together.

It is because of this comment that I feel it important to approach any Lebrecht text on grounds of both style and substance. Sentences and paragraphs can compel without having any solid logic behind them. Indeed, they can compel without necessarily communicating. This was the case when I recently cited how Charles Wadsworth once introduced pre-performance remarks by Christopher Hogwood at a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert:

I'm not always sure what he is talking about, but he sure sounds purty.

I am less interested in how Lebrecht "sounds" and more concerned with what I take away from what he has to say.

So what did he say this time? Basically, he took the leap from the concert hall to world affairs in a Comment piece that appeared today on the London Telegraph Web site. The good news is that he got right to the point in his opening paragraphs:

Early on Monday afternoon, a neighbour came knocking at my door. "Did you hear?" he said, jittery with agitation. "Hear what?" "The lunchtime concert from the Wigmore Hall."

I shook my head. "It was disrupted," he continued. "Very well organised, they were. No sooner was one of the demonstrators taken away than another started up. They were barracking the Jerusalem Quartet, and in the end Radio 3 had to abandon the broadcast. Terrible business. Shocking."

My instant reaction was to reach for some perspective. That morning, 39 people had been killed in the Moscow Metro on their way to work. Beside such appalling images, the disruption of string quartets by Mozart and Ravel seemed trivial, too frivolous to accommodate in the same thought. Yet as the day merged into a week when two faiths sought the seasonal comforts of Passover and Easter, the attack on the Wigmore Hall assumed an awfulness all its own. True, no one was harmed, and the incident barely made the papers. Nevertheless, it amounted to an assault on an element of civilisation whose value we cannot see until we lose it – a sanctuary where people under pressure can find relief from the world and its woes.

Where I register agreement is on the need for perspective, but that need is abandoned at the very end of the above passage. I refer specifically to his precept that sanctuary is a valued "element of civilisation."

I take this as a perfect opportunity to invoke what I have called "the Olympic 'wisdom' of Thomas Bach" with his classic (if hypocritical) remark, "Let's not kid ourselves." At the very least let us recognize that neither the Founding Fathers of the United States nor any of the British Enlightenment philosophers that inspired them ever said anything about sanctuary being an unalienable right. Indeed, from a global point of view, so few ever enjoy any benefit of sanctuary that it would be fair to call the concept a highly elitist one. As I write this I happen to be listening to Nina Simone singing "Sinnerman," whose message is basically that sanctuary is never granted to the wicked. This makes a nice myth for those who still embrace nineteenth-century Social Darwinism; but deprivation of sanctuary has nothing to do with whether you are good or evil. At best it only has to do with where you sit in your local class hierarchy, and now even that criterion is losing ground.

This is not to say that I approve of applying a skillfully conceived act of protest to disrupt a string quartet recital. On the other hand I really have to wonder whether or not Wigmore Hall is still the place of "no street noise, no tweets" (as Lebrecht put it) that it was the last time I attended a recital there (which, alas, must be measured in decades). I know that no number of reminders to turn off cell phones in the United States can prevent one going off during a performance, no matter how many serious listeners may be in the audience; and more recently I have observed that this violation of prohibitions extends to using cell phones to capture still images or videos. I have to wonder whether Lebrecht is writing about Wigmore Hall today or the Wigmore Hall I remember from past decades. Indeed, given the number of cameras that monitor public places in London, I find it hard to believe that the concept of sanctuary is honored any more than that of personal privacy.

So Lebrecht does not like that Wigmore Hall may be losing its sanctuary status. Quite honestly, I don't like it either; and I feel exactly the same way about Davies Symphony Hall, which is much closer to my own front door. Nevertheless, I know better than to rant about this as "an assault on an element of civilisation." If we can get beyond to abuses of Social Darwinism, it does not take much to recognize that the concept of civilization, like just about any other concept in our semantic space, evolves, changing as the context in which that concept is invoked also evolves. Any number of factors contribute to the change of that context. Some of them, like cell phones, emerge from the objective world of technology; others, like demographic profiles, are part of the social world. None of them can be predicted or extrapolated. The concept of civilization is how people choose to talk about it. If Lebrecht cannot communicate with those people, I am not suggesting that he change his mind; but he should recognize the obligation to be more careful about the language he chooses to use.


Elaine Fine said...

Please Stephen! I'm not one of his defenders. Since I got my hands on a pre-publication galley of The Life and Death of Classical Music (you can read my review of it here, I consider myself to be one of that book's first critics.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Elaine, fair enough ... you are not one of his defenders! Nevertheless, I have no respect for him as a writer; so we may continue to disagree on that. My own position is that the best style can never carry the ball in the face of shoddy (or worse) substance. I am sorry if your comment from last year still haunts my posts like a ghost, but you wrote that review at the other end of your hyperlink in 2007!

Elaine Fine said...

My comment on your dentist post was (pardon the horrible pun to come) tongue in cheek!