I was sitting at my desk the other day when, over my shoulder, I heard a tour group coming down the hall. The visitors passed the WXXI newsroom and stopped a few feet away.
“And this,” announced their guide (a smart and lovely woman who works in another department), “is Classical 91.5. Classical music is very soothing, very relaxing!”
She laughed a little when she said this and we, those enthralled by the life force of the greatest music on the planet, looked up and offered weak smiles. The knot of tourists moved on.
I shot a look at my co-worker, afternoon host Mona Seghatoleslami, and whipped up a graphic to express my thoughts.
Anyone enslaved by the power of classical music bristles at the term “soothing.” Sure, it CAN be relaxing, but it’s also exhilarating, heart-rending, maddening, blood-pumping, and myriad other qualities that express what it feels like to be a person alive on the earth in 2013. As the conductor emeritus of the Rochester Philharmonic Christopher Seaman would put it, classical music appeals to our whole selves -- our bodies, minds, and souls.
So why do people latch onto “soothing?” Certainly those using that term aren’t listening that much. Anyone driving down the interstate when WXXI Music Director Julia Figueras presented “Rage” from Trail of Tears might have veered into a ditch if he expected “soothing” from a fabulous new recording featuring composer and violist Richard Auldon Clark. “Rage” compressed burning fury into four and a half minutes of scraping, thumping, wailing. “Relaxing?” Um, no.
So how did we arrive at “soothing?”
First, let's blame popular culture for fueling stereotypes about classical music with ad campaigns such as this:
You can’t deny the cuteness of the demure mini-wheat with his wee I-pod and winsome smile, but clearly the mini-man on the right is listening to the opening notes of the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. The sweeter wheatie’s got James Taylor. The labels have been switched.
Second, I hold mainstream print media accountable for sloughing off serious arts reporting in the past decade. In 2007, The New York Times reported that, "Classical music criticism, a high-minded endeavor that has been around at least as long as newspapers...has taken a series of hits in recent months . . .” because "critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at newspapers in Atlanta, Minneapolis and elsewhere around the country.” When I was growing up in in the 1980s, Time magazine and Vanity Fair employed full-time classical music journalists. No more. In Rochester, NY, the Democrat and Chronicle failed to replace full-time music journalist Anna Reguero. Staff writer Stuart Low has done a valiant job of trying to stay on top of reviews and current developments with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, but it's hard for one person to essentially cover all of the arts. A city with such a rich, vibrant classical music culture such as Rochester deserves a full-time writer at the daily paper. Without serious, focused journalism, people are left with labels and mini-wheats.
But now I’ve inadvertently climbed onto a soap box. That wasn’t my intention, I swear.
OK. Where was I? Not relaxing. Resolving.
Please join me in resolving to shatter stereotypes of the music we love by sharing our passion out loud, inviting friends to concerts, and turning up the volume.
Let’s rage against the machine.