Celebrity classical

The Three Tenors are “the dominant symbol of American classical music.” Or so Joseph Horowitz wrote in his recent magisterial book, Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. Gone is the composer-performer who challenged his audience by introducing them to new music. In his place is the star-performer who delights his audience with a display of showmanship singing or playing beloved, familiar works of art.

Horowitz is right–up to a point. Celebrity culture has infected every aspect of American life, even its art music. Some players seem to become stars not because of their musicianship but because of their looks. Crossover acts–those who dilute classical music with popular–sell millions of albums, to the chagrin of critics. Even some of those performers who are serious musicians can’t resist a certain amount of flamboyance on stage; it seems to make for better ticket sales.

But there are still plenty of serious performers who offer concert-goers more than mere theatrics. Three of them came to the Washington, DC, area this spring: Peter Serkin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Angela Hewitt. With the exception of Ma, these musicians aren’t household names. Serkin and Hewitt didn’t draw as many people as, for example, hot Chinese pianist Lang Lang did this spring for his sold out show at the Kennedy Center. The theatrical Lang Lang has received almost as much press for his showy antics as for his playing of the traditional repertoire, including Chopin and Rachmaninoff. But even he is starting to follow their lead, branching out with a world premiere of a Jennifer Higdon concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra planned for next season.

In March, Peter Serkin played the Music Center at Strathmore under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Serkin is an outstanding pianist who comes from a musical family: His father was pianist Rudolf Serkin. But he still faced something of an uphill battle at Strathmore. Less than three weeks earlier, WPAS had announced Serkin would replace Murray Perahia, whose finger injury forced a cancellation of his ten-city U.S. tour. Perahia is one of our best pianists, a sensitive musician who is also an esteemed conductor.

Serkin is no slouch himself, of course. New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini has called him an “essential pianist.” And he’s familiar to Washington audiences, playing his first of 14 concerts here 40 years ago.

Serkin is an intelligent musician. It shows not just in his playing, but also in his musical choices. His repertoire is wide, ranging from early music to contemporary composers. Few pianists are such advocates of new music as this New York City-born musician, and he’s premiered many works. In particular, Serkin is a champion of the American modernist composer Charles Wuorinen.

His interest in the old and the new fused in March with the first piece he played, Josquin Desprez’s Ave Christe. This Renaissance work was “remade” for piano by Wuorinen. Serkin’s light touch retained the lilting sound of this piece originally written for voices. Serkin continued with three more early works. The highlight was John Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae. But none of these short, mostly simple pieces showcased Serkin’s abilities. He really began to display his talent, his studiousness, during Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. It is a virtuosic piece. But still nowhere near as difficult as Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, which Serkin launched into immediately after the intermission, barely sitting down at the piano first. This is one of the most difficult piano sonatas to play. Serkin’s engagement with it was impressive. He got only more animated during the 45-minute work, never seeming to tire. Despite needing to read off scores for most of the pieces that evening, he was completely enmeshed in the music. In every piece, he seemed like a romantic at heart. (He certainly likes to use the pedal.) The seeming gentleness of the man in the white tie and tux belied the passion within. That emotion never made its way out through ostentation, though; Serkin remained a consummate professional. And while the evening may not have had a high “wow” factor, Serkin’s thoughtful playing did provide much pleasure, and his choices showed a sense of continuity through the English Renaissance to German baroque and Romanticism.

Yo-Yo Ma’s every concert, it seems, does have that “wow” factor. Perhaps it’s because the musician is never willing to rest on his laurels. He’s one of the best known and best loved classical performers–his name even featured in an episode of Seinfeld–but he constantly pushes himself–and his audience.

He really made his name playing Bach’s Cello Suites. Ma’s star power has introduced countless audiences to these demanding, beautiful pieces. Since then, the cosmopolitan, Paris-born musician has admirably used his fame to present unfamiliar and new music from around the world. He’s recorded Appalachian, Argentinean, Brazilian, and Chinese music. His Silk Road Project explores the cultural traditions of groups along the ancient Silk Road trade route that led from China down to Rome. Through the project, Ma has introduced the world to musicians and musical traditions from China, India, Iran, and even Azerbaijan. It’s an impressive and worthy achievement.

But Ma has not forgotten about his classical roots. The Washington Performing Arts Society also brought Ma here this season, for an April concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. He played three of the Bach Cello Suites, No. 3, No. 5, and No. 6.

Ma brings great feeling to these works. His phrasing carries a light touch. But what was most interesting, hearing him play these pieces now, was a sense of continuity with his Silk Road Project. The gigue of Suite No. 3, for example, carries with it an almost Eastern melody at times that could fit right in with anything Ma or his collaborators are working on.

Ma is a humble musician onstage. But then, neither this music nor this level of mastery needed any dramatic accompaniment. Ma has a charming stage presence, though. “Okay, one more,” he mouthed, sticking his index finger up to indicate he’d play just one more encore.

Angela Hewitt is also a noted interpreter of Bach. She embarked on a ten-year project to record all of his major keyboard works for the Hyperion label. The Canadian pianist, who now makes her home in London, played Baltimore’s Shriver Hall Concert Series earlier this month. She performed Bach’s Partita No. 4, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. Hewitt reports on her blog that this was her first public performance of the Rameau Suite and her first performance of the Brahms in over 20 years. She writes, “The last time I played that was in the International Bach Piano Competition in Toronto in 1985–the event that launched my career. It was great to revisit it after all that time, and the large crowd seemed to enjoy it!”

They certainly did. And as her blog indicates, Hewitt really cares about her audience. She dresses, for example, like every concert is a special event–with which her, it is. In Baltimore, she wore a stunning teal gown. Watching her onstage is a pleasure: She’s tall, elegant, and slim, and sits upright with perfect posture. But her playing is never prissy. And she has incredible range. Her rendition of the second movement of the Brahms was particularly beautiful and lyrical.

Hewitt also has a composer she champions, but he is no longer alive to write new music for her. She has recorded three discs of the work of French baroque composer Francois Couperin. She is one of the first to play his works on the piano, rather than the harpsichord for which they were written.

Hewitt is another intelligent musician. For her CD releases, she writes extensive program notes. Indeed, it was a surprise to find that the notes for her Baltimore concert were written by someone else. A disappointment, too–Hewitt’s notes always show her as a scholar as well as an accomplished musician. She also shares her knowledge with the public, reviewing books, for example, in British newspapers. Like Serkin and Ma, Hewitt is proving naysayers wrong: Celebrity culture hasn’t completely ruined classical music.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.

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