A few years ago I was having a semi-serious conversation with my good friend Stephen Walt, the principal bassoonist with the Albany and Berkshire Symphony Orchestras at the renowned "Chef's Hat" restaurant in Williamstown. Between bites of bacon and eggs, I posed one of the imponderable questions: What is this "canon" of classical music, and why does conservative thinking trump imaginative programming?
So, get ready for a little heresy. The immortals (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, et al) have been hero-worshipped, ensconced, enshrined, hallowed and adored for generations. Are they about to be thrown off the musical Mount Olympus, relegated to the dustbin of music history? No way. So, what's wrong with that? Plenty, in my opinion.
It used to be that music written in its own time was played, pretty much to the exclusion of older music by dead composers. People wanted to hear only new music, much as people today want to see the latest films, go to modern art galleries, read current bestsellers and see the newest shows and plays on Broadway.
So what is it about classical music that makes people want to turn back the clock and re-visit the past? Well, there's a sense of security that comes with the name "Beethoven," for example. We know that even if we've never heard a particular work on the program, it's going to be "great"; the composer's reputation has preceded him.
Certainly, it's easier for presenters to sell tickets to concerts if there's a "name" composer, not to mention VIP performers like Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma.
The predominance of old music over new is just not good for classical music. And it's the only example I can think of where preservation may lead to extinction. It's great that we're living longer, but it's not a healthy sign that the audience for classical music consists mostly of seniors. And re-packaging the classics has not succeeded in attracting young audiences.
There is no choice but to live in today's world. We are a polyglot society and speak many languages, dialects, colloquialisms, vernacular and slang; much of today's new concert music is a living and vital expression of our time. Our American culture, more than any other, reflects that mélange.
Looking back, the classics were gradually admitted to the canon by a sort of process of elimination over the span of many years. Musicians and audiences cast their votes, in effect, through performer advocacy, concert attendance and record sales for their favorite works by a select few composers. It's always been fairly casual as to which composer is currently "in" or "out," though big-name and powerful conductors and performers have exercised a lot of influence with star performers and the music-loving public. Would today's audiences be so gaga for the Mahler symphonies were it not for their advocacy, in the 1960s, by Leonard Bernstein?
Rarely have living composers or those fairly recently deceased been on the "in" list, but sometimes they've made it. John Adams ("Short Ride on a Fast Machine" and the recent opera "Dr. Atomic"), is popular, as is Osvaldo Golijov ("St. Mark Passion"), Samuel Barber ("Adagio for Strings" used in the film "Platoon"), Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story," "Candide" overture and "Chichester Psalms").
Aaron Copland has always been hugely popular, with "Lincoln Portrait," "Fanfare for the Common Man," "Appalachian Spring" and "Hoedown" from "Rodeo" - all justly familiar and beloved by the public.
Returning to the classical canon, we risk stagnation by the obsessive clinging to the overly familiar, like Linus with his beloved blanket.
If we care about music, we have an obligation to nourish it as a living art form, not to put it under glass, like a fragile hothouse plant.
I'll admit that "contemporary music" of the abstract, high modernist ilk has turned away many listeners in the name of progress, experimentation, the search for a radical originality, or just plain indifference to the audience for classical music. Can we blame listeners for being gun-shy, after more than sixty years of disdain by composers?
Happily, times have changed. The language of new music has matured to become more inclusive, amalgamating elements of the past with the sensibilities and immediacy of the present, with all its linguistic diversity. There's a lot of wonderful and audience-friendly music being written today in all manner of styles by composers who have gotten past the trap of composing self-indulgent music for other composers and academia.
Concert programmers need to develop some peripheral vision and think outside the "Top-40" box of the classical canon and start to respect savvy and intelligent listeners by offering them a healthy dose of the great variety of music that represents our living culture - not to replace the past, but to add to it; audiences deserve nothing less.