Today is the 151st birthday of Achille-Claude Debussy. If you missed his sesquicentennial last year and would like to get back on track, this fall’s musical milestones are Verdi 200 (October 10) and Britten 100 (November 22). (Wagner’s 200th birthday was May 22 and there have been Rings around the world all year.)
Many journalists scorn commemorations of these round-numbered anniversaries as pseudo-events, drummed up for publicity purposes. Well, they are, because they work. They work because, at least once every 25 years or so, we humans enjoy celebrating with others the life and work of an individual who achieved something we collectively value.
And who doesn’t love birthdays?
When I wanted to liven up events at the Corcoran College of Art and the Peabody Institute, I would check the date on BrainyHistory and order a cake for one of the almost always deceased artists (Corcoran) or musicians (Peabody) on the list. On September 25, for example, during the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival, the frosting read: “Happy Birthday, Dmitri [Shostakovich] and Glenn [Gould].”
This kind of thing is supposed to be fun, not forced. Yesterday, I got a tweet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that read (with a link):
Happy birthday to Jean-Baptiste Greuze, born on this day in 1725. Celebrate with “Broken Eggs”
(I have unsuccessfully interviewed for jobs at the Met twice in my so-called career. But I swear I’m not bitter. I wish the place the best and that they would stop engaging in conduct unbecoming a great art museum.)
The point I’m making is not to find a birthday and celebrate it. It’s to look for opportunities to usefully stimulate the universal human interest in the lives of others.
In deciding which classical concerts to attend, the true buffs scan the opus numbers on the program, but a lot of us go by the composers’ names. (I’m leaving out of this equation, for now, the drawing power of the performers.) Beethoven is the leading brand, strong as ever, though there are some who pass on his symphonies for reasons of overfamiliarity. Debussy rings a bell, though his music is not liked by all, and are we talking about his piano music, his songs, La mer, Pelléas et Mélisande? Ca depend.
As an (a) Ivy Leaguer (b) living in Maryland, I received an email promoting an October 28 recital at An die Musik in Baltimore with this description:
During their tour in D.C., they will be performing their “Canciones Populares” program, with classical works exploring the irresistible energy of popular styles and songs and including works of Ravel, Mozart, de Falla, Bartók, and Reinaldo Moya.
Commence mental grading process (the following grades represent the personal preferences of an amateur and are for illustration only)…
Ravel B+ (sometimes sounds wishy-washy to me)
Mozart A (for Amadeus, viewed at an impressionable age)
Falla A- (love that Amor Brujo, saw the Saura movie)
Bartók A+ (a family favorite, like Debussy)
I Google it. It’s “Jim Thorpe’s finest restaurant” (Jim Thorpe is the remarkable name of a town in eastern Pennsylvania, the subject of a future post). There’s also a northern Virginia chain called Ricos Tacos Moya. In the 3P (see my post “The Power of 3P”) on Yelp, Danea C. of Norfolk notes that the Richmond Highway restaurant was “conveniently located close to the Best Western I was staying at and also had TVs showing music videos which was nice since I was eating alone.”
Scrolling on, Moya “was a Leviathan transport, a sentient, organic space ship previously in the captivity of the Peacekeepers before her prisoners escaped, allowing her to be free of her control collar and escape herself.” Also on the first Google page: D.C. architecture firm Marshall Moya and First Lady of Celtic Music Moya Brennan. Urban Dictionary explains that ‘moya’ is an acronym for Medieval On Your Ass, a phrase from Pulp Fiction. Who knew?
On the third page, Reinaldo—a Venezuelan American doctoral candidate at Juilliard—at last appears. On his website, where he is shown in front of snow-bearing evergreens (he lives with his wife, a violinist, in Minnesota), we learn that he aims “to bring to life a music that reflects my personal vision of Latin America, with all of its intricacies and contradictions.”
When I got the email, I had no opinion about Moya, possibly thinking: “Who the heck is Moya and why would I want to go to a concert with his music on the program?” Now he’s nearly a buddy of mine. I’m inclined to go just to support Reinaldo and I can’t wait to hear his contradictory music.
But I shouldn’t have had to do all this research. It’s up to the presenter to put information and images—multimedia, if available, by all means—connected with an artist (composer, choreographer, writer, painter, sculptor, architect) and his or her human milieu (family members, friends, colleagues, competitors) in front of prospective audience members. The more, the better. Matching tone, content, and vehicle (public radio? beer coasters? the September issue?) to well-defined audience segments. And continuing in the same manner with those who show up, then and from then on.
Sidebar: A singular example of showing how a painter lived and worked is the painstaking installation of Francis Bacon’s London studio, a trash heap of wonders, in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
I call this process ‘importraiture’—having ruled out personification, humanization, incarnation, and biographication—and, with your permission, will now use it in a few sentences (also wholly fabricated):
• How can we do more to importray Moliere in our season brochure? [This sounds quite natural in French.]
• Fascinating importraits of the architect and his patron make the Fallingwater orientation video a mini-documentary.
• Though the works were chosen with a discerning eye, the exhibition is sadly lacking in importraiture. We are left without a sense of what Porter was like or how he interacted with the family members who appear in many of his paintings.
So, take it, this modest contribution to marketing jargon. It’s free!
Briefly, now, on the issue of an artist’s life vis-à-vis his or her work: There is a range of opinion from (in summary paraphrase) “Focus only on the work, to which biographical details are irrelevant and the evaluation of which should not be colored by favorable or unfavorable judgments of the artist as a human being” to (likewise) “It is impossible to fully appreciate the work without knowledge of the artist’s life experiences and character, the flaws in which must not be excused by the quality of the work.”
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross writes of the May 22 birthday boy: “Although Wagner’s operas are never explicitly anti-Semitic—something that cannot be said of the work of Dickens or Degas—his hatreds often lurk just below the surface. Such historical awareness makes blind idolatry impossible, and that’s a healthy thing.”
Well, Degas’s anti-Semitism is news to me and Ross will probably hear from Degas’s lawyers. But this passing reference (not to say backstab) makes me want to learn more about Degas. As Ross must know, flaws—up to a point—are good for a character. They make biographies, screenplays, and retrospectives all the more compelling. Human interest beats idol interest every time.
Let us, next week, take Benjamin Franklin as a case study, in “Busted! Ben’s Busted Bust on a Bus” (I kid you not).