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Comment: Classical musicians do themselves a disservice by shutting out other genres

By John Terauds on October 17, 2012

The flap over changes in administration at the Banff Centre attracted a lot of online commentators, many of whom heaped scorn on the idea of including other genres of music in the residencies. It’s an ethos of exclusivity and, by inference, superiority that I believe diminishes the artform.

It takes only the lightest scratch on the surface of classical music to discover that so much we hold so dear has roots in or borrows heavily from popular forms — folk music, in particular.

The operas of Giuseppe Verdi are filled with melodies borrowed from the streets. Is it any wonder that Italians have returned the love for the past century?

The Romantics were known for filling their compositions with quotations from folk idioms. Does hearing a dumka in a Dvorák quartet diminish its quality? Is Chopin any less elegant for his mazurkas and waltzes?

Telemann, one of the Baroque era’s most accomplished composers, loved Roma fiddle tunes.

In the 1920s, Darius Milhaud made Brazilian dances his own by casting them in weirdly exotic harmonies. (I played two of them on Vladimir Horowitz’s Steinway two weeks ago, causing my minder, a stuffy caricature of a classical pianist/teacher, running up to see what the wonderful stuff was that he was hearing.)

Then there is the issue of the three-chord simplicity of pop music. Simplicity can make art better, not worse.

I’ll never forget sitting down with the score of Handel’s immortal Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest, in first year of university and discovering that it’s first eight measures — the setup of all that harmonic tension that explodes in a fireball when the choir comes in — is based on D major tonic, subdominant and dominant chords (with a little supertonic twist in the second measure).

I, IV & V are the basic chords of a rock anthem, too.

 

George Gershwin wanted to be more like Maurice Ravel. Maurice Ravel wanted to be more like George Gershwin.

Had these two been able to meet at the Banff Centre in the shadow of the snow-capped Cascade mountain range, who knows what sort of magic would have come from sitting in each other’s studio, or taking a hike together, or rounding up a small gang of instrumentalists for a bit of jazz-infused adventure?

Those of us who deeply love music want to share it, see it live and grow. We want the tens of thousands of people who have never given art music an even passing thought to hear it speak to their favourite indie band.

Torontonians have been able to witness the beauty and success of this type of open thinking, sharing of ideas and mutual inspiration in the amazing work that Andrew Burashko’s Art of Time Ensemble does every year.

We’ve been assured by the powers that be that Banff’s changes are not going to be at the expense of classical music, but will be in addition to classical music. That means more, not less.

Unfortunately, we have the recent history of the CBC to thank for making us all paranoid that art music is slowly being backed into a dark corner. But this is a very different situation — one that offers the exciting prospect of people coming together to discover ways of getting out of that dark little corner.

(And, speaking of our public broadcaster, I heard from a CBC Music insider last week that, of all the new channels streaming on the web, it’s not hip hop or rock or folk or jazz that’s the most popular; it’s Baroque music, which happens to be very fond of dancing.)

I’ll let Sir Andrew and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have the last word (this is from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations 10 years ago):

 

John Terauds

 

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