There are many ways to define a 21st-century classical musician, which makes sense, because as the century evolves, so does the idea of what it means to play classical music. Many people reading this – especially younger ones – are forging that definition right now.
But here are some things I think these artists might be.
- They go their own way.
- They perform or compose the music they like, in the way they like. And that music isn’t always classical.
- They make their own opportunities. They shape their careers like entrepreneurs, and might produce their own performances.
This contrasts with the way things used to be.
Under the old rules, if you played the clarinet, the music you played was the clarinet repertoire. Your musical life was defined by that music. Your role was to serve the composers who wrote it, and your own identity mattered much less.
You didn’t control your performances. Others – whoever booked you to perform – would decide how your performance would look and what the program notes would say. Your audience would be their audience. You wouldn’t have one of your own.
But times have changed. Here are musicians who play by new rules:
Anderson & Roe: Entrepreneurial wizards
The key to their diversity? They don’t just play music written for two pianos. They’ll arrange anything they want to play, whether it’s a Michael Jackson song or the first act finale from Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte (which they feature on the third of their three albums, An Amadeus Affair).
And they do all this with fabulous visual flair, as you can see on a page of their website devoted to their many videos. Here are links to two of them, which also show their musical range:
- “Der Erlkönig” – one of Schubert’s most famous songs, now transformed into a musical/video production so dramatic, so intense, that Roe is literally swept off her piano bench.
- “A Rain of Tears” – an aria from a Vivaldi opera becomes a quiet soundtrack for images of rain and melancholy.
Stewart Goodyear: Follow your dream
Stewart Goodyear is a pianist born in Canada, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, at Curtis, and at Juilliard. Has played with many leading orchestras.
Many would be satisfied with such success. But Goodyear had a crazy dream – to play all the Beethoven sonatas in a single-day marathon – for which, he said, he’d have to train like an athlete.
And he did it. Every year, he plays his marathon at major venues: the big opera house in Dallas, the Mondavi Center in Davis, Calif., Toronto’s Luminato Festival.
He also composes – most recently a piano concerto, which he premiered at the Peninsula Music Festival, and Count Up, a fanfare, written for the Cincinnati Symphony.
He’s made recordings. Beethoven, of course – all the sonatas. And, just released, the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Who writes the liner notes? These are his performances played his way, so he writes the notes himself.
James Ross: Empowering his students
Ross teaches conducting and conducts the orchestra at the University of Maryland School of Music. Two of his conducting projects have just about gone viral – performances of “Afternoon of a Faun” and “Appalachian Spring,” in which the students played the music from memory and danced it while they played. This empowered them, bringing out a creative force they may not have known they had.
Another empowering project: a performance of Petrushka, with the musicians doubling as actors. This was so impressive that the New York Philharmonic did it, too, empowering its own musicians.
Ross also empowers the students in his Maryland orchestra to help create a new kind of concert dress – informal black, with an accent color picked for each performance and applied (or not!) in creative ways by the musicians.
Ross has also run the National Orchestral Institute, a summer program for young professionals, where he gave musicians power to produce concerts on their own. Their programs featured classical performances alongside rock arrangements and improvisations.
Mason Bates: Fusion of opposites?
Not so. No opposites here. Yes, Mason Bates is a classical composer and a dance DJ. But in the 21st century, why should these things be opposites?
Here’s proof of that. Who likes what Bates does? No less a maestro than Riccardo Muti, who personally picked him (along with Anna Clyne, whose work also isn’t in a normal concert style) to be composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony.
Bates also does projects with his hometown band, the San Francisco Symphony – and with many other orchestras, including the YouTube Symphony, with which he performed in 2009 and 2011 as electronica soloist, as he often does, in symphonic pieces that he wrote. You can watch those performances, here and here. You’ll find an outline of his thriving classical career, along with details of his DJ work, on his website.
And, proving that all of this has an audience, he and Clyne exploded the Chicago Symphony’s new music series, MusicNOW, into something that attracts huge, young crowds.
Lara Downes: Doing it her way
Downes, a pianist, recorded an album not long ago that’s not a standard classical release. She and cellist Quill Bailey play American music: Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Lukas Foss. But with a twist. Yes, they play the Barber’s Cello Sonata, a formidable work written for their instruments. But they also play music they’ve arranged from songs by Barber, Bernstein and Copland, including two from Bernstein’s musicals. They play the music that they like.
In San Francisco, where she lives, Downes founded what she calls an “alt-classical” concert series called The Artist Sessions, which is hosted in clubs and performance spaces for people who never go to classical events. Downes has written about how hard she works to attract these people and to make the concerts memorable.
Other recordings? Highly varied.
13 Ways of Looking at the Goldbergs: 13 composers write their own takes on you know which Bach piece.
Exile’s Cafe: poignant works by composers living in exile.
If you follow the links, you’ll see that Downes promotes these highly individual releases with video trailers.