Is there too much music out there? That was Maurice Abravanel's contention in his keynote speech at the Music Teachers National Association convention here last month.
"There has never been so much music available, and not only available but pressed on every human being, as there is today," the retired Utah Symphony music director told his audience.Presumably he was not talking about the expanded Utah Symphony subscription season, but rather the goo that spills over us in elevators, at the supermarket, even over the telephone if we have the misfortune to be put on "hold." In other words, not so much music as Muzak.
But in fact he didn't stop there, extending his argument to the concert hall. For just as background music desensitizes us to the process of listening really listening, i.e., with our full attention so, he maintained, does the routine repetition of masterpieces that by their very nature should be reserved for special occasions.
And guess what his example was, the piece that in his estimation was well on its way to becoming an everyday occurence as opposed to the extraordinary experience it had seemed in his youth? Would you believe the Beethoven Ninth Symphony?
That strikes home on a weekend when, for the third year in a row, Joseph Silverstein has used that very work to either conclude or round out yet another symphony season. Not that there was anything routine about the performances, but are we somehow becoming inured to the fact of the work? By virtue of its omnipresence, is Beethoven's magnum symphonic opus in danger of being reduced to the level of the Pachelbel Kanon?
The comparison was not a random one. For in different ways each owes a measure of its current popularity, in both the good and the bad sense, to the phonograph and by extension the radio. In the case of Pachelbel's little mind-number an example of pre-Muzak Muzak? who had even heard of it 30 years ago, much less encountered it on concert programs? (Forty years ago, interestingly enough, the same could be said of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons.")
Its very length prevented the Beethoven Ninth from having that kind of exposure, at least until the LP era. Then the gates were open, so to speak, and by the mid-1960s its strains always immortal could be heard within the context of the latest Beatles movie.
Did that somehow diminish the work's stature? I expect Abravanel would say yes, and I would concur to the extent that that is not how I would normally want to encounter my Beethoven either. On the other hand, I'm still missionary-minded enough to believe there may have been those for whom that movie represented a first exposure but hopefully not a last.
Which is to say, I'm still in favor of the proliferation. Certainly Beethoven can take it, and so can I. But I share Abravanel's dread of the routine, since the only thing that usually builds an audience for is boredom, or novelty for its own sake. And obviously when you do the Beethoven Ninth every year there are going to be a number of equally special works you can't do.
At the same time I am not insensitive to the dangers of endless repetition, even of supposedly great music. I think back to my first Utah Symphony tour, in the course of which I must have heard something like nine performances in succession of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto (think what it must have been like to play them). Or the 1981 tour, which came closer than I ever want to come again to ruining "Pictures at an Exhibition" for me.
By the same token this last one, with its multiple Beethoven Violin Concertos, proved that even that master is not immune. Not that Silverstein's performances ever fell below a certain level. But there did come a point where I will admit to not exactly looking forward to the next one.
Was that my fault or the music's or was it simply a case of listener fatigue? I don't know. What I do know is that in the case of all three works, I later discovered my interest hadn't been exhausted. And all it took to bring that realization was the next great performance.
If that will ever be true of the Pachelbel, I can't say. Except to note that I'm still waiting.