Some things are worth the risk

Max Reger

Max Reger

We human beings have a funny relationship with risk.  We fly in planes, even though we’re placing our faith in their ability to stay in the air on science that most of us don’t understand and a person most of us have never met.  We drive automobiles in hazardous weather even though the chance for an accident is significantly higher (maybe as much as ten times) than in normal weather (which is risky in and of itself).  Some of us drink so much alcohol that we don’t even remember what happens.  Some of us jump motorcycles over the Grand Canyon.  Some of us have unprotected sex with multiple anonymous partners at the truck stop about 40 miles east of here and then can’t get in contact with “Randy” to tell him that he may have herpes now.
And yet, there a few areas in which we are incredibly risk averse.  Jessica Duchen has a new article in Standpoint about this risk aversion as it relates to classical music, especially in live performance.  There are many terrific performers and interpreters who are engaged in bringing some of this rare and underperformed music out of the shadows (my friend Ken Woods is in the midst of just such an endeavor with the music of Hans Gal) and into recording catalogs, but most orchestras are not interested in programming these works, particularly the large-scale ones.  Why should we schedule a potentially delightful symphony by Louis Spohr when we can just play the Pastoral?  Again?  There’s a reason why we should, and I call it the Andrew Zimmern Theory.
Zimmern (for those who don’t watch the Travel Channel) is the host of Bizarre Foods, a show in which he travels the world eating things that most of us would hit repeatedly with a broom.  He is a man who has eaten worms, scorpions, eyeballs, and used the phrase “that’s good bat.”  Whether or not this makes his palate any more “refined” than Joel Robuchon or Patricia Wells is up for debate, but my theory goes like this: 8 out of 10 crazy things that Zimmern eats are disgusting and would be the kind of thing most of us would spit into a napkin.  But 2 of those 10 are really delicious, and we’ll never know because eating Yak Brain in Spicy Testicle Broth kills our appetite before it gets started (although if I were going to have Testicle Broth, I would probably hope it’s spicy). 
I’ve had some really good food entirely by accident.  The first time I ever had lengua (beef tongue) tacos was due to my lack of remotely decent Spanish-speaking ability, but I enjoyed it a lot, and still do (provided it’s made well).  One look at my generous mid-section will tell you that I eat plenty of falafel sandwiches, but I only worked up the nerve to try Mediterranean food in my mid-twenties, and now it has me contemplating vegetarianism every time I eat it.  There are so many foods out there that are outside our comfort zones that we refuse to even try, even though the possibility exists that we will find something we thoroughly enjoy.  What’s the worst that could happen?  We don’t like the taste, we angrily finish the bite we took, we drink a bunch of water, and we swear we’ll never try Moroccan food again.  That’s not really a very big deal.
Music is much the same way.  There is a dramatic shortage of intellectual curiosity on the part of audiences, and it leads to performances of the same music over and over.  It is somewhat understandable that concert attendees would want to get their money’s worth, especially with ticket prices being what they are, but there is a whole world of music lying undiscovered by the masses simply because of a numbers game.  No one is suggesting that the Lyapunov Piano Concerti are going to replace the Rachmaninovs in the repertoire.  But I’ll be damned if the Lyapunov Concerti aren’t awfully enjoyable.

What’s the worst that could happen?  We think that the concerto is too intricate and complex, the solo part hammers away at the keys too much, it doesn’t really move us as much as we’d have hoped, and we swear we won’t investigate Max Reger any further. 

But what’s the best that could happen?  The intricacy conjures aural images of Brahms living another 15 years, we love the dense and unusually connected harmonies, we marvel at the sheer amount of notes in the solo part, and we go on ArkivMusic when we get home to find a disc of Reger’s orchestral works to listen to

In many ways, a live concert is the best opportunity to learn a new work, because you’re captive and theoretically have few distractions.  But it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario in today’s budget-crunched environment where any of this rarely performed music gets its day in court. 

One of my favorite features of this blog is the “Something cool you might have missed,” in which I highlight music that I’ve serendipitously encountered at one point or other.  I’ve discovered some of my favorite pieces through nothing more than curiosity at titles like Mystery of Time or Thalaba the Destroyer, or through music that was concert or recording filler like Wallenstein’s Camp or October.  And ultimately, it is often these types of happy accidents (Bob Ross alert!) that lead us in new and exciting directions in our exploration of music.  All we need is to give it a chance, like beef tongue.


2 thoughts on “Some things are worth the risk

  1. Aww, I was hoping by clicking on “Thalaba the Destroyer” it would take me to some kind of magical free music distribution service…OK, it’s apparently a Bantock work…

  2. Stay tuned…I’ll probably be doing something about that in the not-too-distant future. Love that piece, and in fact love Bantock. Totally underrated composer/friend of Sibelius.

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