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Merchants of Culture

WPASSelling art is surely one of the hardest tasks: Having enough passion for the subject to do it in the first place would preclude having the heart to treat it as a mere commodity. Treating it as anything but a mere commodity, however, would mean eventual bankruptcy. It should therefore be no surprise that the more successful merchants of culture are those that are well endowed on the business side of things, but with scant or modest inclination to artistic and ‘high-culture’ flights of fancy.

We, the consumers, although we might not like to think of ourselves as such, especially those among us that (naïvely) deem culture and the fine arts as something that ought to be above commercialism, benefit when commerce and high art connect and overlap – even if just by coincidence. As such we are blessed to have WPAS in our midst – an organization that manages to bring some of the finest exponents of classical (and non-classical, for that matter, but Ionarts tends to let that fall by the wayside) music in the world to town… even if that comes about despite, rather than because, of the tastes and ambitions of its leadership. A vibrant, commercial-as-it-wants-to-be WPAS serves the region infinitely better than a bankrupt, that is: non-existent, one.

Popularity, even in classical music, is the touchstone of success. Those who by virtue of education, experience, ability, or merely self-delusion and pretension, think themselves as the arbiters or vanguard of ‘good taste’ (you may replace this convoluted description with “music critics”) therefore have an interest in communicating as best we can why we think certain artists worthy of the public’s attention and – ultimately – worthy of popularity. There is no need to steer people away from what they like: Il Divo and Andrea Bocelli are loved for a reason (as are, unfathomably perhaps, Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears) and energies need not be wasted on patronizing consumers who well know best what they like, when they hear it. I have quoted from M.D.Calvocoressi’s "Musical Criticism” before: “[I]f you are trying to make people see that their taste and faith is at fault [for liking something ‘unworthy’], the position is that you are holding out no direct, positive inducement: ostensibly, you are proposing, not to add to their stock of artistic pleasure, but to detract from it. The task is as graceless as that of taking a bone from a dog.”

Much rather it is to gently suggest, introduce, or ease their ears toward something we know will be rewarding to them, if, perhaps, not on first listening. It is a selfish task, surely. The more popular that is, which ‘we’ already hold in high regard, the more likely we are to be rewarded with it through scheduled performances of this town’s arts organizations. If the enthused audiences become amenable to new experiences and even the occasional surprise, we will find that program calendars, too, will become less predictable and more diverse. WPAS will be the threshold for measuring the regions’ willingness into exposing themselves to new music and new names, rather than just warhorses… while those warhorses we all like will always remain staples for our every-years’ consumption.

Maybe 2007/2008 is not that year. A quick look at which concerts and artists sell tickets, regardless of program, allows one to predict WPAS’ season with some accuracy – and I’ll be glad to take a stab at it.

No season can go by without the “big three moneymaker” classical artists. Expect Yo-Yo Ma in a recital – perhaps as soon as November. Bank on Joshua Bell appearing with WPAS. Again. Be assured that Lang Lang will perform. These artists could play “Three Blind Mice” and fill the Kennedy Center – and they will. (Fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, that is, not play “Three Blind Mice”.) And since the NSO had great success with the ever popular James Galway, maybe he, too, will perform again in Washington. Shamelessly, we might even be served another helping of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I learned to love him in New York last week, but if he were to come to town (or North Bethesda) with his Russian Warsongs - again! - I might fall out of love, just as quickly. (Now if he sang Verdi and assorted Russian Opera-arias, we’d be talking. Don’t count on that. Expect Russian War Songs. I saw the line for tickets when he performed them last.)

Then there are performers that have local appeal and, too, are money in the bank. They can be of lesser artistic appeal to the high-bred snob or, alternatively, are superb artists with a slightly lesser name-recognition. Yefim Bronfman seems to show up a lot – so I would not be surprised if he showed up again, at Strathmore in October. Coupled with Orpheus I could imagine very fine results, actually. Especially if they played challenging music next to the inevitable barnstormer. Schnittke next to a Beethoven concerto… or Schoenberg coupled with Brahms D-minor comes to mind. I hope we will be spared Garrick Ohlson but Itzhak Perlman might be nice to hear. If not for the artistic value, anymore, so at least as a life-time achievement tribute to his supreme art. Put down Itzhak for me, for WPAS. Gil Shaham – often bringing his sister – is a regular and popular guest. Perhaps not exciting but always welcome: We’ll find him on the schedule, surely.

But if there is a sense of complaining, it must be said that commerce most happily colludes with art if rarely gifted artists exude ticket appeal: If Murray Perahia recovers from his ailment (or has, already), I would love it if he graced us with is presence where he canceled last year. And since Alfred Brendel at the Kennedy Center was a great success, I’d be equally looking forward to hearing him. At Strathmore. Leif Ove Andsness, too. Maybe even Yundi Li (at GMU with the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly on March 3rd, by the way). Piotr Anderszewski impressed at the National Gallery – let him do the same at Strathmore. Perhaps in one of his fine Mozart Piano Concertos? (My favorite being the C-minor, K.491 – so I am keeping my fingers crossed.)

Orchestras are expensive to move around, so their popularity is particularly important in order to calculate proceeds (and underwriters’ contributions) against expenses. Their performance was excellent, if not exactly thrilling, so let’s have the Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst back. If the NSO won’t bring James Conlon back (and apparently not make him our new conductor), let WPAS shame them by having him here. He could lead the Philadelphia Orchestra (who also need a new conductor) in a concert with, for example, Charles’ favorite Helene Grimaud. Yuri Termirkanov may have left Baltimore for good, but would it not be fun to hear him with his favorite band, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic? Good business sense – and an absolute delight for anyone who heard her in Baltimore last season – would be if he brought Julia Fischer with him… and together perform the Beethoven concerto again. (Don’t forget that Julia Fischer also plays with the NSO in the third week of March. Her Khachaturian concerto should not be missed!) Since Kurt Masur has proven popular, he might come with his Orchestre National de France. We were robbed of his Bruckner last season – maybe he will make up for that. Otherwise, Beethoven is always reliable with Masur.

I don’t know how tickets are selling for Chailly’s concert at the Center for the Arts – but surely a program of Italian hits would fill the Kennedy Center, if he brought the Filarmonical della Scala. Most of all, despite just having been here… nay: because he was just in town: We’d love to hear Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw again. And best of all I should like to hear them in Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. It would be a program good enough to whack any facetiousness out of me, when it comes to commenting about cultural programming.

Fun speculations as these are, we’ll see how well the WPAS predictability-meter functions when they announce their season.