Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Does Carnegie Hall Want a New Identity? Does it Need One?

The news about Carnegie Hall reported by Randy Kennedy on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times was not particularly encouraging:

Carnegie Hall announced on Tuesday that it would celebrate its 120th anniversary on April 12 with a gala event to be hosted by James Taylor, along with a sizeable lineup of celebrity guests, including Bette Midler, Sting, Steve Martin and Barbara Cook. The event, to highlight “many of the extraordinary musical and cultural events that have taken place on the Hall’s legendary stages over the past 12 decades,” as the institution described it, will also feature members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Proceeds will benefit Carnegie Hall’s artistic and educational programs.

What is missing in this picture is any representation of those events that most of us associate with Carnegie Hall.  Ironically, the one name on that list with the closest connection to the more serious side of the Carnegie reputation may well be Sting, who, with his wife Trudie Styler, gave a reading of the correspondence between Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann for Twin Spirits, John Caird’s theater piece about the Schumanns (released as a DVD in 2009).  I suspect that Sting knew enough not to volunteer to sing any of Schumann’s vocal music, leaving that part of the program to the more appropriate voice of Simon Keenlyside.

This, however, raises the important question.  Why is Keenlyside not mentioned in the above list, or anyone like him, such as Thomas Hampson or Deborah Voigt (to show a bit of bias for Americans)?  I can understand why a full symphony orchestra might not be recruited for this affair;  and I would like to believe that the event will not (and least not entirely) be the sort of middle-of-the-road “pops” bill of fare that now plagues our Public Television airwaves.  Still, the idea that no recitalist or chamber ensemble was worthy of mention in this initial dispatch strikes me as evidence of a sad decline in the expectations of both “producers” and “consumers” who have a hand in what happens in Carnegie Hall.

Last April I wrote about “how vulnerable ‘serious’ music is to middle-brow thinking.”  In that piece I was taking the British to task over the decision of BBC Radio 3 to broadcast a weekly Classical Top 20.  I wrote that piece as sort of a shout-out to Rupert Christiansen, who described the BBC decision as follows:

What depresses me is the way that classical music is constantly chasing after techniques of the pop sector, and ending up, like a paunchy middle-aged man squeezing himself into a pair of tight blue jeans, looking a bit silly and terminally uncool.

He could just as easily have been writing about pledge week offerings on Public Television, and now it appears that Carnegie Hall is throwing itself in with the same company.  This is a venue whose 120-year journey is rich with historic events, which have earned it a prestigious standing on an international scale.  Will that standing be honored at this anniversary party or merely lauded with gratuitous palaver?

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