A Juilliard graduate pianist says the system is screwed

A Juilliard graduate pianist says the system is screwed


norman lebrecht

July 26, 2015

Jack Kohl, a New York based music director, has written his first novel, That Iron String(Pauktaug Press). It’s about a couple of pianists in New York, trying against all odds to make a go of it.

Interviewed by our colleague Michael Johnson, Jack has this to say about the concert business:

jack kohl

Aren’t we witnessing a lemming-like stampede? Aren’t Asian conservatories training thousands of talented youngsters, most of them aiming for careers in the U.S. and Europe?

Yes, the throngs of pianists keep coming, and throngs of really good ones. I do not believe the next generation will be the last in classical music. The music will survive because of its greatness. But the medium of the large concert put in place with, say, Mendelssohn and Liszt — and the re-creative artist as window on the imagined intentions of the composers — perhaps must, perhaps should, play itself out.

Look ahead 30 or 40 years. What might replace current classical music performance traditions?

I think the re-creative artist will eventually have to remerge as a creative artist. We cannot forever be textual slaves and hope to remain relevant in a glutted market. I don’t know where the new music will come from. But I know it will emerge and join a place with the canon — and it will be something that will be loved.

Are young artists already starting to rebel?

Indeed. What young, thinking mind can long honor the mantras and standards that are put forth by the conservatory and university if the ideal of the re-creative artist is principally, if we are really honest, simply playing as cleanly as possible from a page of score written by someone centuries ago? Everyone attempts to cite all sorts of flaws to the present system – but this simple and monstrous flaw stares everyone in the face and no one speaks of it. It’s repetitive music-making.

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  • John Borstlap says:

    Mr Kohl should concentrate on writing fiction, that is clear, because his opinions about music life are fictional as well.

    The art of playing the repertoire is not merely mechanically playing the notes written by dead white males. Notation leaves much space for different interpretations, and the successes of great interpreters of today (and yesterday) prove that it is this margin of individual approach which keeps the repertoire alive and contemporary. Mr Kohl obviously has not paid close attention to what is happening at concerts.

    • Glenn Hardy says:

      You may disagree with his ideas, but to dismiss them as fictional for the sake of a clever analogy is misleading. The professionalization of music (and of all the arts) is finally beginning to be questioned. Unfortunately, those who have invested money, time, energy, and careers in this twentieth century industry-created “profession” are usually (and understandably) not the ones doing the questioning. I’d say Mr. Kohl has been paying considerable attention not to only what is happening at concerts, but to what has been happening to our beloved art form as a result of the academic world’s custodianship and domination over the past hundred years or so. The goose that laid the golden egg is dying. Criticizing the messengers will only be a temporary distraction.

      • Mark Henriksen says:

        There is a reason that “recreated” classical music still has an audience today and it is preposterous to suggest that this will all of a sudden change and proceed toward extinction. Without offering any coherent reasons, its in the realm of the imaginary; fiction. There is nothing stopping musicians from “creating” something via improvisation that people will pay money to hear. Go to it. Even the considerable forces of the “Academic World” can’t stop you from finding your audience.

        • Grigor Petrov says:

          With the real glut of Asians into the market, we are fast becoming a provider-based business instead of a consumer based industry. Thus the slim pickings for we trained musicians to play at meaninfgful paying venues

  • Derek Castle says:

    I enjoy listening to CDs of music performed by the ‘greats’ of the past (not many around today) but I do get pleasure from going to live concerts. In his book Mr Lebrecht describes in detail the rise and demise of the recording business. The flood of young soloists, mainly pianists, from Asia means the market is already sated. At the concerts I attend, where by some miracle, considering huge cuts in subsidies for the arts, we still get the cream of world famous artists, most of the audience are over 60, many much older. And this despite having the luxury of one of the world’s best concert halls and an enormous surrounding population (icluding two universities and a conservatoire). So, to sum up, I can’t see how concert going in its present form can remain viable. We read enough on Slipped Disc about American and German orchestras’ financial difficulties. Is the present young generation going to be sufficiently interested to keep the classical music business going? Repertoire is everything. Deviate from the popular and you will ensure a half-empty hall, or worse. It’s all right for Ms Netrebko and Mr Kaufmann to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ et al for the umpteenth time at huge open air concerts in the summer, but what about the grass roots?

  • 110 says:

    Climbing the Everest is easy.Having a great soloist career ..

  • John says:

    I’ve been reading about the “death” of classical music since the late 1970s. Vangellis, Mozart with a disco beat, chanting Monks, burned-out Australian pianists playing “Third Rach from the Sun,” topless violinists, electronic string quartets, and rockers writing “serious pieces” are among the gimmicks I’ve heard were going to “save” the music and keep it alive. And you know what? All those gimmicks are dead…and classical music is still here. Long after the writer of this silly missive is dust, Bach and Beethoven will still be around. So will other approaches (improvisation, playing in clubs, merging old and new forms) but so what, they have been around since Liszt’s day. The core classical will last even though the naysayers will still be predicting its imminent demise. This is a very tired, hackneyed argument.

  • Andrys says:

    Unfortunately, it’s too true that in the past two decades, we’ve heard too many churned out from conservatory factories to sound pretty much the same and without much creativity expressed in the re-creating of the note patterns — it seems to reflect the modern technical age and I just see levers going up and down and it sounds that way.

    But then someone who was an incredible artist, Vladamir Bakk, was available for concerts in the U.S. and somehow most of us never heard of him, and that is just crazy. He had almost no concert opportunities. Listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wA9DUHEtiM to see what I mean.

    I add that piano recitals today don’t tend to be well-attended unless the pianists are hugely known already and more often for concerto playing. Pianists like Sokolov are the exception though he is not particularly available in the US.

    Then again, I won’t spend money to go hear bad improv — but I will pay to hear even a familiar piece like the Ballade I linked when it’s played in a way that makes it sound somehow new, fresh, and incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us.

  • Claire Mera-Nelson says:

    Very good thing that Trinity Laban’s new postgraduate curriculum (launching September 2017) includes compulsory elements in generative music making, analysis and pedagogy then, isn’t it! We believe there is a kind of continuum of musicians with fully re-creative musicians at one end and fully generative musicians at the other – its our belief that no musician should (for the sake of the longevity and health of their careers) sit at either extreme.