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Passion is okay!

May 14, 2009

Last night on the air I read an excerpt from the Lexicon of Musical Invective, which I know isn’t exactly a secret in the music world.  That doesn’t make it any less good.  The snippet was about Rachmaninov where Cesar Cui likened a piece by the composer to something a servant of Hell would write to please the masses of the underworld.  It sounded ridiculous, but if I knew that going to the NY Times Arts section would yield similar quotes, I’d probably end up there a bunch more than I do now.

Really – passion is okay in classical music.  It seems like way too often people who talk about the music are stuck in the era of Milton Babbitt, where music wasn’t designed to please the senses but the intellect, or at some extremely polite dinner party where no one ever offends anyone.  The truth is… there’s a lot of uninspired music out there that should be identified as such.  Why?  Because there’s also a lot of really passionate performances out there that deserve the distinction, and its not fair to try and paint everything in a similar light.

That’s a lot of the reason why I love Jeremy Denk’s blog.  He recently wrote on the Goldberg Variations in an extremely human way.  He sounds like some regular slob living in an apartment trying to make his life work – he just also happens to be an amazing concert pianist.  His words give life to the music in a way that we don’t often give to classical music.

How often do you hear someone shout out that Shostakovich’s music is a bleak sarcastic reaction to tyranny?  When someone asks you what the deal with this Terry Riley character, do you say its the aural embodiment of democracy?  Henry Cowell’s music is like watching a five year old run around in a new playground for the very first time.  That would get MY attention!  Yet we all have a habit of over-intellectualizing the music and covering it up.  It’s not really fair, is it?

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