Few people would believe that there is anything new about antique music. The ratings show Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music service runs a pretty solid 20th, behind their own news stations and the alternative music service, The Current (but ahead of the overtly political talk stations). Isn’t this just a parade of long-dead white guys who wrote tunes you can’t dance to?
For a new generation of performers and listeners, there is nothing quite as exciting as very old music. Their energy and passion infused into the ancient has created a new creation that defies time and convention, opening up new worlds of possibility to those who are daring enough to give it a try. Newness is, as always, in the passion of the beholder.
The new generation of “classical” music even has its own hunky poster boy, Gustavo Dudamel. He is the 30 year old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who worked his way up through “el Sistema”, the system of music training in Venezuela. His status as a rockstar is belied only by his persistent smile, a dimpled grin that fades only when the passion of the music overtakes him for a moment. His performances are full of an energy and precision that orchestras have not sounded for a long time.
Yet he is far from the only such star of his generation. This new generation had its way led by a number of fiddlers – violinists, if you must – who are determined to take their instruments where they have never been before. The superstar Joshua Bell once played in the Washington DC Metro with his case open, making 32 bucks in change, but he’s usually more comfortable in a small bar than any of the jeweled concert halls where tickets run much more than that. It’s a lot like the band that JS Bach and GF Telemann formed to play every Friday at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, circa 1730, under the name “Musical Friends” (Collegium Musicum).
What’s really new in all this? It turns out there is a lot yet to be discovered as this generation digs into the past. It was up to Rachel Barton Pine to perform Franz Clement’s Violin Concerto for the first time in 200 years, revealing how strangely similar it is to the later van Beethoven Violin Concerto. The secrets of the past cannot hold up to this much energy and talent.
To catch some of the new energy and fun infusing old music these days, a great place to start is “Performance Today” (weekdays at 1PM on MPR). Host Fred Child plays a sample of live performances, at least a few bubbling with the energy of this new generation. I would like to say that this show is like a carefully cooked meal savored slowly, but it is more intimate. I might compare it to a gallery opening, but it’s more delightful and challenging. PT stands alone as its own moment, bubbling with life and a purpose that crosses the boundaries of time the way it sonically crosses your imagination.
This is a great time to be a listener of antique music, without any doubt. Now that the standards have been recorded over and over by just about everyone the dust is being shaken off of works by obscure composers not heard in centuries. This includes a lot of outsiders such as Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, and Clara Schumann, wife of Robert – both of whom were never given a chance in their own lifetime because of their gender. There is so much that stands as new to a world far too long deaf to it.
Where does antique music go from here? It’s hard to say if it will grow in popularity as this new generation takes over, but it would not be surprising if it does. A world that is weary of corporate music could do a lot worse than to turn back to the time when a few wealthy nobles did much of the sponsorship – if for no reason other than to retune our ears and highlight other paths that can be taken away from the one we’ve been on.
For all the passion that has come to “classical” music, the revolution remains a quiet one. That suits us well for now. Josh Bell may not be the kind of rockstar who is recognized in the subway, but he and his many colleagues are opening up worlds not exactly new, but undiscovered enough to dazzle us all over again. It’s a great time to be a fan of old music.