• Tanya Tomkins
  • October 27, 2014

The Gentrification of Early Music

Phoebe Carrai

Phoebe Carrai

Right now I am on my return flight from New York where I was teaching Phoebe Carrai’s wonderful Baroque cello students at the Historical Performance Department of Juilliard. This was a great honor and a lot of fun, and yet for me it was very disorienting.

Let me explain….

It started with my elevated heart-rate as I approached the  Lincoln Center stop. Above the screeching of the trains and the oppressive heat of the subway, Juilliard awaited, in the heart of our nation’s most cultural city, in the center of the city’s Classical music mecca — built literally in the shadow of Alice Tully Hall —  and surrounded by America’s greatest concert halls.

Synonymous with the Classical music establishment, the school’s name alone rings like a hopeful mantra or a distant dream in the minds of music students the world over. Juilliard, the name that inspired disbelief and approval from my seat-mate on the flight out when I mentioned it — and caused the younger me to run in horror, across the ocean to another continent —  to another culture altogether, to live in a language I couldn’t understand — in search of  freedom from having to be “good” or “making it.”

I ran straight to what was then the most rebellious and radical early music movement — Holland, where just a few years earlier Frans Bruggen had been sitting in the audience yelling and throwing rocks at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in protest of the perceived conservatism of Classical music. Leaving the States and not going to Juilliard symbolized for me an escape from the “right way” of playing.

Right before I left the Ufransbrueggen-blockfloeten-werkedesbarock-1.vol.2.S. I listened to a recording of Nikolaus and Alice Harnoncourt’s Vivaldi Four Seasons. The primitive, visceral scratchiness of the violin playing combined with the almost three-dimensional sound of the ensemble was a profound shock. Finally, I thought, it paid off in spades not to play “well.” The music made so much more sense to me this way. It was so powerful that it woke me up to a totally new way of approaching music. Galamian could not have taught this kind of playing! There was no one, uniform, beautiful tone — just many constantly changing ones that fit the character of the piece.

Flash forward to few days ago. I walk up the stairs and into the building that so many years ago inspired such terror in me, only now I am going to teach cellists on gut strings how to play softer, closer to the bridge, crunchier, less pretty, and to vibrate less well from note to note. In short, to play more subversively. When I was their age I almost hid my Baroque cello technique from my modern-playing colleagues for fear of being teased. (“Yeah, let’s play Baroque-style and get totally seasick!”) Now there is an entire early music faculty at Juilliard, training music students to take more risks with their tone, to play more rhetorically, less sung, and to play less like how you have to play to win a symphony audition. In short, to play more “radically.”

Here is where the disorientation starts to set in, and where I must ask the question: does the welcoming of “historical performance practice” at Juilliard signal an end to the revolution? Does the fact that these students play their first squeaks on gut strings and produce their first experimental tones on unfamiliar woodwind instruments in Alice$(KGrHqMOKooE3FEgLpcSBN8VDKIm4g~~_12 Tully Hall — the epicenter of established music-making — make a once radical approach to music formulized? Can it be likened to the Mission District in San Francisco where the adventurous (and poor) artists can no longer afford their own neighborhood because it is now so cool that everyone wants to live there?

Another dear colleague who is now a member of the Juilliard faculty (who shall remain nameless) said to me years ago, “So, you moved back to the States to join the early music ghetto?” What happens to a ghetto once it is gentrified? What is lost and what is gained? Is the acceptance of a revolutionary idea into the mainstream the sign of the success of a revolution? Or is historic performance practice still a revolt that is now being staged at Juilliard?

I welcome your comments!



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