Elitism is dead

Long live classical-music elitism
By EMILY PARKHURST  |  March 5, 2008
Paul Dykstra

An Ivory Winter | by Paul Dykstra
Recently the musical world has been discussing the impending death of classical music. This chatter, often led by lovers of the genre, may in fact be hastening the demise, as various writers attempt to conjure up reasons classical music must exist.

We, as a society, desire high art, whether we acknowledge it or not. Just look at the success of shows like Bravo’s Project Runway or Top Chef, which focus on extraordinarily talented artists competing to be the best before a panel of sophisticated judges. These reality programs deliver to millions of Americans an accessible version of high art — and it’s working.

Recently, the Norman Lear Center conducted a survey on the correlation between political party and entertainment. It was found that “all political types claimed they enjoy classical music” and “classical music nudged ahead of rock as the most popular genre overall.”

If more Americans listen to classical music than watch football (according to the Lear Center survey), why does Eli Manning make millions of dollars while amazing pianist Ingrid Fliter drew a crowd of fewer than 500 to the Merrill Auditorium February 6?

A possible answer: elitism. Since the Baby Boomers condemned classical music as the despised genre of their parents, leaving those who remain fans labeled proprietors of an inaccessible art form incongruent with popular art.

“If it is ‘elitist’ to create works over average people’s heads then why is it alright [sic] to have schools to educate them?” Portsmouth composer Roger Rudenstein asked recently in an essay in the e-zine NewMusicBox.

There is nothing more elitist than suggesting a genre is over average people’s heads. If a composer is composing art for the sake of art and a performer is interpreting that art for an audience there solely to bear witness to that art, elitism is utterly out of place. Once the notes dissolve into the air, it is up to the audience to decide if the music was over their heads. And if many of them agree that it was, possibly the composer missed his mark (or will not be appreciated in his lifetime). The rise and fall of Serialism is an example of elitist musicians’ willingness to alienate the very people they need to survive: their audience. The casualties of this alienation, like waiters at a bad restaurant, are the musicians on the stage.

New Hampshire pianist Paul Dykstra's new self-released album, An Ivory Winter, includes a number of what Dykstra calls “works that mean a lot to me.” These include Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, two Chopin works, and an exquisite rendition of a Scarlatti sonata. Dykstra suggests this is “music to drink hot chocolate to,” a fitting description, considering that every work on the album is in a chilling minor key. But Dykstra keeps the metaphor going, showing a little bite: “the tone of this album is more like dark chocolate than milk chocolate.”

While most of Dykstra’s dark-chocolate interpretations were smooth, they were disturbed by the bitter taste of the last two tracks: two movements from Roger Rudenstein’s Piano Sonata No. 7, an abrupt and inaccessible composition.

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