One of the things that people like to point out about classical music these days, usually in an effort to convince us that it’s in decline, is that there are no superstar instrumental performers anymore.
Or sometimes they grant a single exception: cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The term superstar is used here in the sense of “celebrity that most people have at least heard of.”
And superficially, they’re correct. Ma probably is the lone authentic superstar. Up until recently, you could also toss in violinist Itzhak Perlman, but Perlman’s solo career is winding down, and his superstar status is diminishing.
(I’m limiting the conversation here to instrumentalists because I think that, for a variety of reasons, the situation with singers is slightly different, and maybe one day we’ll discuss them separately.)
The question is: what does the loss of superstars mean? That we are no longer producing great musical talents, with great musical personalities?
I don’t think that’s what it means.
In some ways I think it means the opposite.
I’ve been thinking about this question in connection with the recent passing of pianist Anne Koscielny. Anne was a faculty member at The Hartt School for more than 25 years, beginning in 1965. She later went on to teach at the University of Maryland, and a few other places. In her later years, she had lived in rural Heath, Massachusetts, with her husband Raymond Hanson, was also a pianist and teacher of distinction, having been the chair of the Hartt piano department for many years.
Anne died earlier this month at the age of 78. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor a year or so earlier.
A lot of folks around here, at one time or another, were lucky enough to have heard Anne play. They will corroborate my contention that Anne was not merely a fine artist, she was a brilliant, major-league artist.
One of her specialties was to perform the complete 32 Sonatas of Beethoven in a cycle spread over eight evenings. She did this a number of times over the course of her career. The power and imagination of her playing left people – even, and perhaps especially, her fellow pianists and musicians – fumbling for superlatives.
I can say that Anne Koscielny was in their league.
But although she achieved a certain level of recognition within musical circles, and certainly enjoyed what we can call a successful career, she never became famous, at least in the superstar sense.
I’m sure there were many reasons why. She was a mother, a wife, and a truly devoted teacher. She always stuck me as being uncomfortable as a self-promoter. I never asked her about this, but she might have been one of those artists who are genuinely uninterested in, and perhaps a little suspicious of, celebrity. In her case this would have had nothing to do with self-doubt or fear of success.
And yet when you heard this woman play, you were hearing music making of the highest possible level.
It’s important to remember that, because we tend to equate fame with some kind of absolute measure of artistic stature. It’s a dangerous equation.
Years ago, when Jean-Pierre Rampal was the reigning flute player on the international circuit, I wrote a piece in which I wondered aloud whether many people would be able to tell the difference between Rampal and, say, the principal flute player for any major orchestra if both were playing behind a curtain. I acknowledged that I, for one, would not.
Or to take orchestras themselves, I have always found the idea of a so-called “Big Five” (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago) to be pointless, especially in recent decades.
Did it really mean to suggest that, in a blind listening test, experienced music listeners – to say nothing of ordinary concertgoers – could say for sure whether they were hearing a Big Five orchestra on a recording as opposed to the Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Minnesota or any of a dozen or two others?
And yet we crave rankings, and we especially seem to crave stars.
It’s not a reprehensible impulse, but it is an increasingly irrelevant one.
For better or worse, the classical world needs to prepare for the reality that the era of superstars – household-name superstars – is probably a thing of the past. Classical musicians simply don’t show up on Letterman or Jimmy Fallon, or on the cover of People. They don’t get a segment on “Extra!” Bizarrely, they don’t even get any real showcase at the Grammy Award telecast, the one network forum that is ostensibly devoted to celebrating music of all kinds. And of course, day-to-day coverage of classical performance in the mainstream media is scant, to put it charitably.
But the very large silver lining is that there are hordes of great players out there, and more being produced all the time. In fact, there may be more great players out there than ever before.
Or as Anne Koscielny’s life and career reminds us, you don’t have to be famous to be a star.
A Great Tradition Continues
The annual Women Composers Festival of Hartford is coming up, and it looks to be an especially strong edition. The festival opens Wednesday, March 4 and runs through Sunday, March 8.
As usual, the festival offers a wide-ranging roster of performances, lectures and discussions at several venues in the area. The host venue is the Charter Oak Cultural Center.
This year’s composer in residence is the visionary young composer and sound artist Lisa Coons, who is currently on the faculty at Western Michigan University.
Tickets to individual concerts are $20.00; $5.00 for lectures and forums. Discounts for seniors and students.
For the full schedule of festival offerings, go here: womencomposersfestivalhartford.com.
Many Happy Returns
Edward Diemente, distinguished composer, educator, organist and bon vivant, turns 92 on February 27. Happy Birthday, Ed.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.