But just what is there to feast your eyes on in a classical music video?

March 01, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Last Monday, watching Pavarotti sing in the 100th telecast of "Live from Lincoln Center," I began to wonder if the future of classical music will be seen as much as heard.

Unquestionably, television has already had considerable impact on such music, particularly since PBS began the Lincoln Center series of broadcasts back in 1976. More people saw Wagner's "Ring" on television two years ago than in the more than in the 114 years since it was completed.

In 1990, the video of a concert by Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras (the so-called "Three Tenors" video) in Barcelona sold 350,000 copies. Tellingly, it's estimated by Polygram, the company which released it, that eight out of every 10 of the people who bought the video had never been to a classical concert.

But the tremendous video sales were still but a tiny fraction of the 10 million copies of the live performance sold in cassettes, CDs and LPs. And that begs the question: Is video the future of classical music in the home?

There's a distinction, after all, between the visual stimuli provided by the classical video and those to be found in the concert hall, and another to be made between classical and pop videos. Pop music videos are as different from classical videos as the two forms of music are from each other. Image is important in selling classical music -- just look at the record covers, replete with punk attitude, for the pianist Ivo Pogorelich or the violinist Nigel Kennedy -- but performances of this music are ultimately not about image.

Pop music is about image and can be, therefore, intimately tied to a visual enactment of it. This was as true in the days of Elvis Presley as it is in the Madonna era. The recent video by Public Enemy of "By the Time I Get to Arizona" is a visual presentation of that rap song's verbal text and a presentation of the rappers themselves. That's an essential point. Pop has usually celebrated its performers, and it should -- because they are often primary creators. You may regard Public Enemy or NWA as nuisances or even as unmusical thugs, but -- truth to tell -- they have more in common with Beethoven, Bach or Schubert than Itzhak Perlman or Herbert von Karajan do. The rappers are creators whose videos help articulate their rage; Perlman and Karajan are only interpreters.

Nigel Kennedy's video of Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto tries to present the composer (and make him accessible) as "Joe" Brahms. But, ultimately, the emphasis must fall upon Brahms, rather than upon Joe. Any performance of classical music -- at least of purely instrumental music -- has to be essentially an audio interpretation because the music is abstract.

I say "essentially" because I will never forget certain visual moments in concerts: Arthur Rubinstein lifting his hands high over his head in Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" and crashing them down with a force that lifted him off the piano bench; Wilhelm Kempff playing the opening of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata and then pausing for a split second to look high into the heavens in Carnegie Hall as he waited for the echo; and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli walking across the darkened stage, looking like a cross between Prince Hamlet and Count Dracula, to play Debussy's spectral "The Sunken Cathedral" as a final encore for a Carnegie audience that refused to leave.

But unforgettable as they were, these visual events are minutiae that help fix in memory important auditory events: the excitement of Rubinstein's Liszt; the loftiness of Kempff's Beethoven; and the chill of Michelangeli's Debussy. Had the interpretations been less memorable, what I saw would have been long since forgotten. And these details would mean nothing on video, especially to viewers to whom the names of these pianists are not important.

Music videos tend to work best (or sell best) when they celebrate an historic occasion: the three most celebrated tenors alive, supposedly bitter rivals, singing together for the first time; Horowitz returning to Moscow after a 62-year absence; or Bernstein conducting in Berlin just after the Wall came down. Even the primitive videos of Toscanini (on BMG classics), which date from the Stone Age, "point and shoot" days of television, have this sense of historic importance: The greatest and most famous conductor in history was working with fierce concentration in front of cameras he cared nothing about.

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