Keeping in mind that I am simple rock guitarist, allow me to tell you a story. Beethoven began his career as a Mozart wannabe who made his way to Vienna to study with the wunderkind himself — teach me master, that I might surpass you faster — and, in my own Hollywood version, arrived just in time to learn of Wolfgang’s death. He settled for the tutelage of Papa Haydn instead, which probably served him better in the long run, and he quickly established himself as the next big thing in neat, perky, and perfect Classicism, albeit with extra oomph and with hidden realms of grief.
But Ludwig was as restless an artist as there has ever been. Three decades on, in his final string quartets — music that he could not hear and that the rest of the world will never unhear — Beethoven blew the doors off what was harmonically imaginable and acceptable in classical music, setting the stage for mid- and late-19th century Romanticism, the greatest combined artistic and popular flowering that the art has ever known. Ludwig, therefore, is not to be dismissed easily when he explains that the purpose of advanced harmony in music is the systematic expansion of the human capacity to feel.
And his theory works, so long as the lineage of tonal (key-centered) harmony holds relatively intact. Audiences could expect a period of discomfort and disorientation as new tensions, new logic, new colors were introduced into the familiar tonal schema, but soon enough they would integrate these developments and grow to understand them intuitively if not theoretically, and voila: new capacities for feeling.
It seems that the composers of the early 20th century wanted us to feel some pretty strange things, unnatural things, and it seems that they didn’t always mean us well. They (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, etc.) wanted us to feel modern warfare, upheaval, collapsing foundations. They wanted us to feel alienation and estrangement from the decaying traditions of the past. They wanted us to feel primal violence bursting back through the veil of civilization with big guns. Perhaps what they most wanted us to feel was a deep distrust of our feelings themselves, the ways we cleave to the stories and payoffs of tonal harmony, in which, no matter how stormy and oblique the voyage, there is always a “home” (say, B flat major) and it is always in sight.
Needless to say, when you burn down their emotional houses, a large percentage of the classical music audience is going to head up the aisles and toward the exits, grumbling in German and French. Those that remain in the theater will contain a much higher concentration of fellow composers, applied mathematicians, and revolutionaries in favor of burning things down, pro forma. Next thing you know, the high tradition of Beethoven and Brahms is now a Messiaen and Morton Feldman thing, actual rocket science with precious little patience for the quaint emotional needs of non-specialists. Undeniable geniuses all, but you’ve smarted yourself clean out of a broad, popular audience. And modern classical music has been answering to this break in continuity ever since.
While he bears no responsibility for or implied assent to the vastly over-simplified story told above, it is revelatory to have this kind of conversation with Alexander Platt who, for two decades, has been Music Director of Maverick Concerts, Woodstock’s sylvan chamber music concert venue and series. Maverick has been booking in the world’s top chamber ensembles and solo performers for over a century, situating them in the enchanted, proto-psychedelic barn that the Maverick colony founder Hervey White built himself in 1916.
“Booking” is a word a simple rock guitarist might use. Classical music programming is a precarious balancing act, as complex as the music itself, and its curators tend to be people of a high level of musical accomplishment themselves. Mr. Platt is presently Music Director of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Artistic Director for Music at the Westport Arts Center in Westport, CT. He also spent twelve seasons as Resident Coordinator and Music Advisor at Chicago Opera Theater. A graduate of Yale College, King’s College and conducting fellowships at both Aspen and Tanglewood, he has guest conducted all over the world.
At Maverick and at halls of all sizes across the country and the world, every evening’s program can be read as a political positioning statement. Where do you stand regarding those thorny modernists, for example? How much space do you hold for living composers, and which kind of living composer? Current traditional? Brooklyn hip? Which past reputations are you elevating, and which are you downgrading by omission or by canonical adjustment? To do this, you have to know music, and you have to know your audience.
Mr. Platt is often integrally involved not only in securing the top ensembles but in assembling the programs of the concerts. “There is absolutely a dialogue,” he says. “The artists will present me with the repertoire they have prepared for their summer touring season, and I work within that to provide a program that my audience is going to love and that is going to draw people. It is a very small minority of artists with whom I have to take their program or leave it. With a slight majority of artists, I make suggestions. I say, ‘I really need to hear this piece.’ I’ll ask them a year in advance, so they have time to prepare. Many, many programs at the Maverick have been prepared specifically for us, and I am grateful for that.”
Under Platt’s stewardship, Maverick has expanded its programming into non-classical genres as well, but this is not news. It has been happening throughout his two decades there, and it has been handled with ultimate respect for the classical tradition that is the series’ bread and butter. Jazz, after all, is inarguably one of America’s chief contributions to serious music, and globally-sourced folk music has been a fountain of inspiration for classical composers for centuries. Maverick has booked non-classical music in a way that highlights this interconnectedness with great nuance.
“Over the last 20 years we have steadily grown a classical-adjacent series of eclectic artists and repertoire on Saturday nights,” Platts says, “whether it be folk music, drawing on the great folk music traditions of Woodstock, or world music virtuosos. And of course we’ve grown Jazz at the Maverick into a full series. We’re welcoming some of the great jazz artists of the world to the Maverick. So our programs have never been more diverse, but at the same time, they have also never been more devoted to preserving and advancing classical music.”
Several times in the course of our chat, Platt references the recent and controversial downgrading of classical music at Lincoln Center’s summer programming, which is often cited as a sign of the poor health of the form. I suggest that in fact it may be just an alternative sign of health and vibrancy — classical may be partially vacating the hallowed halls of Manhattan for the hipper, younger venues of Brooklyn, where hot living composers like Caroline Shaw or Nico Muhly have cultivated enthusiastic young audiences.
“It breaks my heart to see how it has all become so politicized at Lincoln Center and elsewhere. My rules of the road that I’ve developed over the last 20 years are to salute diversity, artistry, and good taste, and ultimately the ideal that art must be enjoyed for its own sake, an ideal that has been handed down to us by our founder, Hervey White — this Utopian vision of art for art’s sake. Salute genius and talent no matter where it comes from.”
If classical music as a whole is acutely reverent toward the past, it is only because there is a lot to be reverent about. And if it is cautious regarding new music, that is mostly due to those difficult modernists who seized control of the tradition in the early 20th century. I ask him whether the young composers of today, many of who have turned their backs on atonality and willful difficulty, are scoring better with his audiences than the 100-year-old modernist music that is still considered “new” by the classical establishment.
“I think new music is scoring far better than the classic modernist composers. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I was taught that Bartok, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky were the three greatest composers of the 20th century. In the long postwar era, that was largely true, in terms of programming. Then this kind of weariness with atonal, 12-tone music set in. For years, we were told by programmers that if we heard it enough, we would learn to love it. And that never really took hold. It’s the dirty little secret of this industry. Sooner or later, we will spotlight those composers again at the Maverick, but I can fill a hall on a Sunday afternoon far better with a bracing contemporary voice like Kevin Puts or Phillip Glass or Jessie Montgomery than I can with Bartok or Webern. These are living composers who are making a living with classical music so why not go to them first?”
“What Covid taught us is what many of us already believed,” Platt says. “There is no replacement for live performance. Classical music audiences, audiences in general, are still not completely enthusiastic about returning to halls because Covid is still very much with it, and there is this kind of tech-dominated idea of, ‘pretty soon you’ll be able to have a hologram of the Berlin Philharmonic in your living room.’ When I see where society is going with virtual reality, I think the arts will be the new reality, to hear it, see it, touch it, feel it. There is simply no replacement for live performance.”
The Maverick Concerts season continues with full weekends of programming until mid-September. See https://maverickconcerts.org for tickets and more information.