Much ado about nothing: Tim Smith's erroneous concerns about modern ignorance

Tim Smith is very concerned with the future of classical music—or rather, he's concerned about classical music’s past. In a blog post he published on Tuesday, he worries, "I don't think there's nearly enough attention paid by current musicians and audiences to the many ways that music used to be played and felt, how differently it communicated – and how much more grippingly it could be performed today." He suggests that people would enjoy classical music more if musicians emulated the emotional, individualistic styles of 20th century classical stars.

On its face, this is a pretty simple suggestion and possibly a good idea. But then Smith makes a jump in logic and extrapolates that current musicians don't sound like they did in the past solely because they don't know any better. Why? Because Kids These Days don't care enough about their ancestors, or something:

It's scary to think that crops of music conservatory grads might have no connection of any kind to such names as Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Barbirolli; or Cortot, Schnabel, Gieseking, Moiseiwitsch, Bolet; or Piatigorsky, Casals, Kreisler, Szigeti; McCormack, Farrar, Melba, Schumann-Heink, Tauber (or even Bergonzi, whose death last month was one more reminder of days when vocal artistry seemed far more plentiful).

The litany of giants who once roamed the music world, some as recently as three or four decades ago, is awfully long. The number of people who still care about them, take the time to dig up their recorded legacy – that list, I fear, is much shorter.

Yes, the obvious reason why highly skilled, well-educated musicians don't sound like Smith's favorite performers of the past is because they just don't know them as well as he does, nor do they care! Damn youngsters.

But I decided that, instead of going with the knee-jerk reaction of disagreement that I tend to get whenever older men scold my generation for being ignorant, I would reach out to some of my friends who are studying music in conservatory now to test Smith's theories: Are younger musicians actually ignorant about the Old Dead Greats? And if not, "what happened to such personality [in performing] and why we rarely enjoy anything remotely like that now"?

I tested my friends with the names that Smith references to see if they knew those musicians, only asking them about the musicians who performed on the same instrument for arguments' sake. (I cheated and looked up the musicians' first names, too, which Smith had omitted.) Rebecca Wood, a soprano currently working on her master's in music at Peabody Institute, could name three of the five singers Smith listed, and added, "These are kind of obscure-ish names . . . I could name you at least 20 opera singers from the '20s to the '70s who were in their prime and are considered classic singers."

I asked Jesse Soracco, who earned a BFA in vocal performance from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012 and is currently working on an advanced music-studies certificate in audio recording and production at CMU, about the same names. He had heard of John McCormack in passing, but hadn't heard of the rest. Not so great, Jesse. However, he said that there is music history worked into the conservatory curriculum: "Certainly speaking from my background in the voice department at CMU, there's an attempt to encourage people to reach out and . . . to be conscious of what great voices have sounded like."

Last on my list was Evan Kahn, an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon who's studying cello performance. I asked him if he knew who Gregor Piatigorsky or Pablo Casals were, and he said yes. He then commented, "It's interesting he named them." When I asked him why it was interesting, he said, "I'd say 99 percent of cellists know who Casals is," and that most cellists would also know Piatigorsky. "It's so funny that he mentions these people," he added, "because I don't like either of their playing."

So, as it turns out, Kids These Days aren't actually ignorant about Smith's favorites. But that doesn't mean Smith's assertion that classical-music performances could use a dose of artistry is entirely a wash. In fact, Jesse said that he thinks younger musicians are afraid of taking liberties with music, and Evan talked to me at length about how he thinks orchestras could have more passion and artistic interpretation in their performances. But I do think it's erroneous to make a blanket statement about a lack of artistic quality across the whole field of classical music—as Rebecca told me, "there are a lot of great [opera] artists right now . . . to say that there's no singers like that today is just ludicrous."

My friends had a lot more to say on the state of classical-music performance and pedagogy, from the history of musical pedagogy, to the danger of young singers listening to too many recordings of other singers, to whether it's even possible for singers and musicians to learn from shoddily recorded performances. Had Smith been interested in talking to young musicians, he could have found plenty of interesting and compelling conversations about why they aren't emulating his favorite musicians of the past.

Unfortunately, Smith seems content to blame ignorance and to yearn for a yesteryear in which people weren't so terrible. At one point, he writes: "It may well be, however, that fewer and fewer people will appreciate classical music, just as there will doubtless be fewer and fewer people who crave poetry (regardless of all those states boasting poet laureates) or who truly savor jazz (talk about an endangered art form). But great art will endure as long as enough human beings have a vestige of intelligence and taste – OK, given the state of the world these days, that might be a finite proposition after all." Ah, yes, the old "everyone is dumb and tasteless" argument. 

He even manages to throw in a dig at the sonic sensibilities of today's generation: "In the age of YouTube, everything, it seems, is available at the click of a mouse and easy to hear through the most basic computer speaker or cheapest ear buds (hardly ideal, sonically speaking, but today's generation seems content with that)." Never mind the fact that digital recording equipment is certainly better quality than what they used in the '20s, or that the premium headphone market has been growing over the past couple of years, showing that this generation may not, in fact, be content with the cheapest ear buds. But hey, who needs facts when you're busy reminiscing about how much better things used to be?

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