The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now mostly a night affair, at least until the weekend’s afternoon sessions. This leaves more time to take in some of the extracurricular activities surrounding the competition.
Two recent events tied in to each other, though this was entirely by coincidence. One was the showing on Wednesday afternoon of Peter Rosen’s documentary The Golden Age of the Piano. The other was the press symposium on Thursday morning.
At the symposium a viewer’s e-mail brought up the subject of snobbery and its effect on the acceptance of classical music by the masses.
Is there snobbery in classical music? I know that there is a widespread belief among non-concert-goers that there is. I once had a reader tell me that he never went to concerts because he refused to conform to the dress code.
I wasn’t aware that there was a dress code, though it is true that evening concert-goers tend to dress up a little. I’ve been to performances of organizations as internationally prominent as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in which a significant portion of the audience was casually dressed, and no one gave it a thought.
Probably the most amusing contrast of formal and casual dress occurs at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The audience is mostly black-tie, but members of the orchestra, because they are completely hidden from the audience, dress comfortably and casually. While the formally dressed audience is shedding a tear over Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, deep underneath the stage the violinists and horn players are playing in T-shirts, blue jeans, jogging shoes and other un-Wagnerian attire. A Bayreuth staff member told me that the conductor dresses that way, too. But as soon as the performance is over, he rushes to his dressing room to change into something a little less shocking to the audience before he goes upstairs to take his bows.
The behavior of prominent artists tends to belie the idea that they are snobs. Over a long career I have interviewed hundreds of musicians, and it’s hard to think of anyone who seemed a snob. One of the few exceptions I can think of was the British editor of an international scholarly publication. But he was so extreme it was like a caricature, and it was more amusing than annoying.
So where does the charge of snobbery come from? Maybe it’s the fact that symphony orchestras tend to dress formally for evening concerts. But I think there are other reasons.
This is where Peter Rosen’s The Golden Age of the Piano comes in. In the documentary he shows film clips of famous pianists from the early part of the 20th century. The audiences shown were distinctly upper class, all bejeweled and dressed to the nines (or is it the eights?). The artists themselves were godlike figures, one of them elevated on a platform, in a Busby Berkeley-like scene, while everybody listened in adoration. The truth is that in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, great artists had an elevated status and the movies and marketing departments played to that and one can see why ordinary people would think there was something hoity-toity about high art.
Speaking of hoity-toity, the traditional Cliburn Competition party on Tuesday night was anything but. In the past these have been at a ranch near Fort Worth (no one who saw it can forget that old cowhand Menahem Pressler astride a longhorn steer).
This time it was in the Texas section of the Fort Worth zoo, with a horny toad and a pet armadillo and other live creatures providing Texas atmosphere while a country-and-western band played, dancers danced, and barbecue and beans were served.
Pressler, one of the Cliburn judges and an internationally renowned musician, was there, though he suppressed his cowboy instincts this time. Many of the other judges as well as contestants were there, obviously having a good time.
This is one of the things Fort Worth does so well. Is there any wonder that Cliburn contestants tend to go away loving the city?