August 14, 2012

In Defense...of all of us...

Finally home - for a day, this day being the first "full" day back in Baltimore after seven weeks in Logan, Utah with the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre.    This season, which was my seventh playing in the company's orchestra, was in many ways a special and affirming one, one reason being that an opportunity came to reconnect with a violinist friend that I knew while working in Houston, Texas (yes, the world is indeed a small one and once again, we are all connected in ways in which we cannot comprehend).

While in Utah I did intend to write:   in fact, I found myself having a deep desire to do so immediately after my arrival as an article crossed my desk.    Now, with time, I am choosing to do so.   Despite what some would call a "lack of timeliness" - after all, we do live in an "instant world", one in which photos from a photo shoot can instantly be posted onto a photographer's Facebook and Twitter pages - it felt necessary to wait, to let this seed spend some time in the ground.

Please know that I have, in the six years that I have been writing, made it paramount to keep things "clean" and without rancor (save for a blog post that was written very close to the 2008 presidential election).   It is with that thought that I ask your forgiveness should the words that follow seem somewhat incendiary.

In June of this year, violinist Charlie Siem was presented in concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City.   For anyone who is not familiar, Mr. Siem is a London-born violinist whose debut CD was released to critical acclaim in 2008 and followed by two additional CD releases on the Warner Classics and Jazz label (should you have not heard Mr. Siem, please take a moment to visit his website and listen to the samples posted).   Mr. Siem also has an interest in fashion and is represented by the special bookings department of Storm Model Management, the agency that represents Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigova, Jourdan Dunn and Kate Moss.    In tandem with his growing concert career, Mr. Siem has appeared in Vogue Magazine, Italian GQ and the Spring 2011 Dunhill campaign - and while his campaign and editorial work has been quite elegant he has shown in the many interviews taken that he is without a doubt a serious violinist.

Regarding modeling:    in a 2008 Vanity Fair interview, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (supermodel, songwriter and wife of former French President Nicholas Sarkozy) spoke very candidly about the business:  “It is certainly not German philosophy, but it was very instructive, because it was made up of real life. You travel, you are always alone, and you better be well grounded, because it’s easy to lose yourself.”    Taking Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy's view of a business in which she excelled into account, Mr. Siem's motives for making entry into the fashion world may be viewed as questionable.  It is important to remember, however, that some of the most revered artists in the field of "classical music performance" have worked in the entertainment world as well.    

Violinist Louis Kaufman (1905-1994) was probably the world's most heard violinist as he enjoyed a long career in Hollywood, serving as concertmaster on over 400 movie soundtracks including Casablanca, Wuthering Heights, Spartacus, The Grapes of Wrath and The Diary of Anne Frank.   Mr. Kaufman was also a champion of new music and made over 125 classical recordings in a fifty year period - including the first complete domestic recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons".  In 1944 violinist, humanitarian and activist Yehudi Menuhin was approached to supply music for a film called The Magic Bow (a fictionalized account of the life of Nicolo Paganini), and even suggested to the directors that he appear in the film  (Menuhin's brief step into the entertainment world is shared with great candor and humor in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey:   Twenty Years Later).   The great Jascha Heifetz also appeared on both film and television:   who can forget his appearances with Jack Benny and the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music, the latter which featured Mr. Heifetz in a starring role?

So I ask:   Is it so terrible that Mr. Siem has chosen to build careers both in music and modeling, especially considering the facts presented here?    Surely not, as there is little doubt that he will maintain the standards of excellence that are audible via his website.   The New York Times writer who was given the assignment of reviewing Mr. Siem's appearance at Le Poisson Rouge, however, thinks otherwise.  

I shall not take time to rebut this review point-by-point; however, it must be said that the direction of said review is made apparent in the first three paragraphs, in which the writer chronicles some of the "highlights" of Mr. Siem's forays into the entertainment world while conspicuously failing to mention any of Mr. Siem's classical "credentials".   It is in the fourth paragraph that said review becomes deeply disturbing:  "There’s nothing wrong with marketing, or with building bridges between classical music and broader culture. But a musician needs to back up his promotional prowess with skill, and at Mr. Siem’s recital on Monday at Le Poisson Rouge with the pianist Kyoung Im Kim, there was a dumbfounding gap between his retro suavity and the ineptitude of his playing."

Ineptitude?  Having listened to Mr. Siem's recordings (with hopes to hear him in concert some day as we do live in a "golden age" of violinists), I of course found myself dumbfounded at the reviewer's words.    While we do expect a level of perfection and insight from performers - particularly those who are performing standard fare like Ysaye and Vieuxtemps - it must be taken into account that we are all human beings, which means that we are subject to NOT being compact-disc perfect at all times that we are on stage.    

It goes without saying that when those special moments arise - those when a performer transcends technique and shares a message that captivates - we cherish them, and we should cherish those moments.   Nevertheless, to ridicule a performer based on one evening - particularly after sardonically speaking of said performer's achievements outside of the small world that is referred to as "classical music" - is at best reprehensible.   

To say that this is a disturbing trend in arts journalism, however, would be to ignore history:  in his autobiography, Isaac Stern spoke of the reviews that followed his New York debut:  "We were so bitterly disappointed...I was being patted on the head by some of New York's most eminent critics and told that I hadn't yet crossed the 'Great Divide' into the lofty realm of the artist; that my playing was 'erratic'; that I ought to go back to San Francisco, to the 'land of violinistic prodigies, movie yes-men and sunshine,' and practice some more."     

Fortunately for us, Mr. Stern used this as fuel to work even harder, the result being that he did indeed enter that "lofty realm of the artist".    While it seems that this "review" may not have hurt Mr. Siem, let us hope that it lights a fire similar to that lit in Mr. Stern's soul   After all, "cruelty can help us"....

...and while there is nothing new under the sun, perhaps we should, as the kids say, require all of our arts journalists to DO BETTER.    One can use Laurie Niles of as the perfect example of how to treat artists and audiences with dignity at all times.



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