One day I was browsing through the pages of musical faculties. A big announcement of the upcoming piano festival where the professors let their best students play immediately caught my attention. It was not an event as such but more the choice of advertising words: “come and listen to our elite piano students”. The word “elite” left me with an uneasy feeling and a state of rumination. I was trying to understand what is behind the “elitism” thinking.
What is elitism? Some people might have a high degree of achievement, some rigorous training, extraordinary abilities, and extensive history of dedication or wisdom in a given field. They form a group of people – elite – whose views on a given matter are to be taken more seriously. ‘Elitism’ occurs when an individual assumes special ‘privileges’ and responsibilities in the hope that this arrangement will benefit humanity. This is a pure theory and if you look at any classically trained musician from this point of you, we would all belong to the small elitarian group of people in relation to the whole world population who undergone years of very rigourous training. But it raises immediately the question of… have you obtained a degree or diploma in music from college? This kind of thinking will have to exclude a brilliant singer Anna Netrebko from our “elite” group too.
When searching in Internet for the words “elitism in classical music”, I immediately came across an article by a famous British music critic and author of the beststeller “Who Killed Classical Music” Norman Lebrecht. In his “Reframing the Classical Music Experience”, he asked: “Why shouldn’t we be elitist?” “Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. They should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.” Lebrecht suggests that the classical music experience should become more selective. More tuxedo…More long pieces…More expensive tickets…More sophisticated audiences…So in other words, as our audiences are shrinking very fast, we could foster a new type of audience. Surely, they will not fill in the big halls then but if we build smaller and more exquisite concert venues for them, they will be willing to pay a high entrance fee to enjoy this exclusive feeling. It made me think of Opera festivals. The tickets are at an exorbitant price, but who cares? The audience is wearing evening gowns with diamonds and smoking and your added value to buying a ticket would be to see the CEO of company XY in person or even shake hands with him/her during the intermission.
When I look through the concert programs, I think that our cultural life is being divided into two big sectors. You have “elite” players with Lang Lang and Co on the one hand, offering full-scale conservative recitals in traditional concert halls and on the other hand, you have a plethora of different concerts with low entrance fees or even free entrance in small or uneven unknown venues. Let us call them “anti-elite” group of musicians. Both groups are trying to win new audiences and have to work hard to be successful. As our culture changed over decades and generations, even the big “elite” players are more informal than they used to be, more spontaneous, more widely creative and far more diverse. For example, the symphonic orchestras try to make the listening experience more enjoyable for uninitiated through pre-concert lectures. Cheaper tickets are made available through public funds that can be ordered online 24 hours and the concerts are as a rule less exclusive. The “anti-elite” musicians see their goal in bringing the mood of classical music closer to contemporary life. They are open to more experiments: they feature unusual venues, tell funny stories between the pieces, permit the audience to clap between movements, and even dare changing the position of a concert grand. A completely new classical world is taking shape far outside the concert halls. Classical musicians play in clubs, restaurants, and shopping malls or even on the street or in the underground. They might sometimes attract an audience of thousands of younger people. According to Dr. David Cutler “Savvy musician”, “these classical music events are still very pale when it comes to comparison with the pop concerts. There are no Lady Gaga outfits, no light and laser shows to accompany the recital with sonatas, dancing fans in the front rows or sing-alongs. “ Sadly but true, the social status of these two groups of musicians will be different depending on their fees. But beside the social and economic implications of elite vs anti-elite thinking, there is one more aspect of being a musician: creativity. Creative thinkers mock the very idea of two different groups. There is a question if the elite group is the benchmark for the „anti-elite“group. If performance is only limited to perfect technique, virtuosity and musical expression, well perhaps yes, but a concert has more features to offer, like being close to the people, with more empathie to the audience, phantasy …. Then the „anti-elite“group could become a real benchmark for the „elite“ group.
Internet became our “bright new world” with a completely egalitarian view. Classical music is now a thousand times more accessible than it ever was before. The classical example is a real pioneer Valentina Lisitsa with her video of Sergej Rachmaninov Etude “Little riding hood” that she uploaded 8 years ago. Now it has over two million views. Her story of publishing solo takes of Rachmaninov concerts allowed her to make her dream come true and record all four Rach piano concertos with an “elite” conductor and “elite” recording studio, Decca.
No doubt, YouTube truly revolutionized classical music business. We are all speaking and dreaming of viral videos. To get started, you do not need the judgement of the tradional decision makers. Everybody has an equal chance of being viewed, clicked and shared. Internet blurres the lines between Decca recording artists and aspiring amateurs. The online audience does not consider the video of Arthur Rubinstein to be better or worse than a fresh video of XY from Toganrog, Russia they like and share. They feel comfortable clicking through hundreds of files and comparing them. They download their favourite music and do not care what the official musical critics recommend. However, in the last years, the online recordings multiplied like rabbits. Google and Facebook had to change the algorithms based on the probability of the appeal of videos to the audience.
I think there is no incompatibility between being tuned in to say XY with 50 clicks and Karajan with two million clicks the next. If we have elitist attitudes, we will never think creativity. We won’t discover own potential. Setting too high standards can kill any good musician with a real potential for a growth. Elitism does not get us anywhere. As well as seeing the value in things that are not generally valued, creative listeners also see the value in people who are not valued. They try to tease out the potential in everyone because they know that no one has a monopoly on creativity.
What is your opinion on the elitism in classical music? Do you think we should foster elite thinking for musicians? What is your attitude towards classical musician? How can we value the creative work of every musician? What would be a creative push for our classical music scene?