Fruitful Competition

June 30, 2008

Like many others, I have never been much of a fan of competitive music-making. The whole process and experience of music seems so alien to a winner-loser frame of reference that treating it like either a sport or a game of chance can seem degrading somehow. And the effects on the competitors, usually young and impressionable, have not always been happy.

But along come Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz to create a competition that manages to banish all the most objectionable aspects of the genre. Informed by their own long careers as performers and teachers of young musicians, the New York Piano Competition emphasizes community and mutual interchange, personal musical development, jurors who are as much resource as judges, discussion and performance of new music, and final celebration of what all the young pianists have brought to the week of activities.
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Endless Mélodies

June 24, 2008

“Le Papillon et la fleur” … was my very first piece, composed in the school dining hall amid the smells from the kitchen … and my first interpreter was Saint-Saëns.

Thus the 78-year-old Fauré, looking back over 56 years to his schooldays at Paris’s newly founded Niedermeyer School of Classical and Religious Music. Fauré boarded for eleven years at the school, where he received an education that was in some ways radically conservative (with Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony as constants) and in some ways uniquely up-to-date (with the ardent young Camille Saint-Saëns introducing the boys to the latest music of Liszt and Wagner). The mixture goes far to explain why, when he became known as a composer, Fauré was thought of as a disruptively extreme progressive — though it may be difficult now for us to see how his music could have shocked anyone. Much of what was thought jarringly new in Fauré was in fact antique: he based many of his harmonic procedures on the 16th-century polyphony that had largely formed his taste. Thanks to the early-music movement, our ears are more accustomed than our great-grandparents’ were to the sonorities of Renaissance music.
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From a news report of 1910:

(The equivalent of that $1,800 in modern currency is approximately $37,000. Quite a lot for even a touring musical star to be carrying in a waistcoat casually laid aside.)

Here is an example of Pugno’s very individual playing of Chopin:

In a thought-provoking essay in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr reminds us how new technology has raised disquiet in thoughtful minds in the past:

Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong — the new technology did often have the effects he feared — but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

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Much is made, in today’s New York Times obituary, of Stewart Mott’s benefactions to political causes, most of them minority in nature. Unmentioned was his zeal and financial support for early-music projects and ensembles. He was one of the financial backers of the historically crucial New York Pro Musica Antiqua, which was such news in my childhood. (I remember seeing performances by them on the Today show during school-morning breakfasts.) Later, when a student of Gustave Reese and John Reeves White, I heard many a casual reference to Stewart Mott as someone who must be consulted or thanked for this or that.

Among the statements issued upon his death, perhaps Ralph Nader’s comes closest to implying why he was such an angel to the musical efforts of many, saying that Stewart Mott was “about the most versatile, imaginative philanthropist of his time. He threw himself into projects and was a pioneer in many fields well before the large foundations.” It was noticeable that supporters of early-music explorations were often the funders of progressive political causes.

So let’s add a postscript to the man’s memorials: while his living on a chinese junk in the Hudson or maintaining a farm on a Park Avenue roof will always grab more journalistic inches, let him also be remembered for a zeal for the uncovering of surprising music from the past for the astonishment of our present.

UPDATE: I have been notified that the original video, above, has been removed from YouTube. It does, however, exist — without the English subtitles — here.