Photo by Luca PerlmanAnimation by Luca PerlmanIt’s getting to be that time of the year again.

When once more I have to bear witness to my follies.

Here goes.

I’m Jewish.

And I love Christmas carols.

There, now I’ve said it.

I’ve loved carols ever since I piled into the yellow school buses waiting for us kids outside Hillcrest Public School at Bathurst and St. Clair to ferry us down to Simpson’s basement at Yonge and Queen in early December to sing our little hearts out for harried shoppers. (As you can see, I’m also old.) And, while there, little Robert would thrill to the music in ways I only later learned why. We Grade Fours loved to end the first stanza of Good King Wenceslas with an exaggerated “gath - ring winter few – oooo – el.” Only later did I realize we were singing a plagal cadence, which had basically disappeared from Western music 600 years previously. And there was something remarkably brilliant and beautiful in Angels We Have Heard on High, because, I now know, the Gloria in excelsis Deo which I was belting out in my innocence had been sung in the West since the 13th century, due to an injunction from Pope Leo IV, more or less exactly as I was singing it beside the men’s sock department in Toronto in 1958.

Read more: Merry, Um, Holiday!

Porgy and BessI love Porgy and Bess. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard the Leontyne Price/William Warfield RCA recording of excerpts from the opera in the mid-60s. The moment I hear that first octave gliss announcing the overture, and that thrilling Stravinsky-like syncopated ostinato that begins the score, I’m lost. And I don’t regain myself until the strange, half-apologetic sixth chord that ends the opera has sounded, after Porgy has demanded of the Catfish Row residents that they “Bring my goat!” (Stephen Sondheim claims to love this line) and Porgy is on his way to find Bess in New York.

Basically, the beauty of the music simply dissolves everything I want to think and decide and judge and insist about Porgy and Bess. It all just gets lost in the overwhelming sense of joy I have in simply listening to the music, in an exalted state of thankful wonder, again and again and again. 

Price and Warfield in the RCA PorgySo perhaps I’m the last person who can adequately work his way through all the remarkably thorny issues that still surround, or should continue to surround this masterpiece. I say “should” because I’ve been more than a little amazed at how little controversy has attended the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy. In 2019, in the middle of the era of #BlackLivesMatter, the Met has chosen to open its season with a production of an opera about black people completely written by white men, that portrays its characters as drug-addled, sexually voracious, verbally primitive stereotypes, mired in poverty and superstition, one step removed from minstrelsy, and no one seems to mind. Granted, the Met is performing the strange 2012 hybrid version of the opera, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” which sands down some of the sharper racial edges of the piece (Porgy is given a dignified crutch, and thus doesn’t have to wheel around on those depressing, ridiculous carts from the local moving company that are featured in most productions), but the basic outline of the piece in its banal racial literalism, is still deeply in evidence. And everyone’s okay with that, it seems. 

And maybe that’s a good thing. 

The opposite was the case in 1959, when the movie version of Porgy and Bess premiered. The reaction to the film was so negative that it has been permanently removed from circulation, Soviet-style. Watching the elegant Sidney Poitier and the glorious Dorothy Dandridge debase and prostitute themselves to the worst racial stereotypes imaginable, in the years just before the civil rights era, was too much to bear. Why watching Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess do more or less the same thing in 2019 on the Met stage is not, is fascinating to contemplate. 

My own feeling is that, in 1959, those distorted images of black America were too painful because they were too real, too close to the surface, too close to the actual attitudes many white Americans still harboured about their black co-citizens. The discomfort is seeing these stereotypes appallingly splayed over a major Hollywood screen, with the stamp of approval such a treatment implied, was too stark. In 2019, audiences, black and white, seem to feel quite differently, even as another major institution – the Metropolitan Opera – gives its nod of approval to the piece. And that’s because we have different models for black manhood and womanhood in the America of the 21st century. Not every black woman needs be a sultry Bess or a mammy-like Clara. Black women can be Michelle Obama, Oprah, Toni Morrison, Serena Williams. Black men needn’t follow the trajectory of the crippled Porgy or the equally damaged Crown. Black men are Barack Obama, LeBron James, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Jay-Z. Porgy and Bess doesn’t offend or alarm black America as much anymore – perhaps – because black America isn’t afraid of those stereotypes anymore. The reality of a different black American life has rendered them impotent. 


And yet, the fact remains that Porgy and Bess, the opera, is still a depressingly literal treatment of black America closer to the world of slavery than the world of #BlackLivesMatter. Porgy is still a problem, I think. Imagine a contemporary black composer and black librettist sitting down today to write an opera on black American themes. How likely is it they would come up with Porgy and Bess? Not likely at all. Then why should we revive it, and allow its old-fashioned reality to colour our contemporary lives? For all its beauty, Porgy still sits there with its dialects, and stereotypes, and problems. 

Angel Blue, who plays Bess in the Met’s current production of Porgy and Bess, seen here as Mimi, with Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Boheme, April 2019. Photo by Michael CooperThere is one way out. We could just assign Porgy to the period piece bin, and avoid its troubling aspects that way – recognize its great strengths as a piece of music, but chalk up its theatrical two-dimensionality to the oddities of the past, as we do with many other works of art. Put it on from time time to time; accept its limitations; declare its racial anachronisms to be as painless as the voodoo/witchery of the black Ulrica in the Boston-set version of Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

But that would be a terrible mistake. Porgy and Bess is a great masterpiece of music, one of the greatest, and it needs productions which match the universality of the score. It’s interesting to note that at a time, from the 1950s to the present day, when productions inevitably provoked intense questions and controversy, there was one version where this was not the case. That was the production of Porgy produced in South Africa in 2006, set in the Soweto of the 1970s. That production spoke to its African audience powerfully and immediately, its caricatures in an American context deeply resonant in a South African one. There’s something extremely important to be learned from this success. Porgy may actually be ahead of its time, not behind it. If there was ever an opera that begged for a regietheater version, Porgy and Bess is it – a production that blows away the fog of literalism which settles like a horrible blanket of racist tropes on every Catfish Row setting, no matter how stylized or “dignified” it may be; a production that recognizes that, deep at the heart of Porgy and Bess, are archetypes both of and transcending black America – the crippled hero, the hyper-sexualized woman, the ultra-violent alpha male – that still ring true, whether we like them or not, and have universal significance.

And then there is that sprawling, massive, insanely ambitious score, a work of Western art in the end, but so American, so completely American in its bones, with its black accents, its popular idioms, its desire for European artistic status, its mixture of black culture and Jewish-American existential dread, a work uneasily at home in settings as diverse as Harlem, Tin Pan Alley, La Scala, Broadway, and the gospel churches of the South, but comfortable in none. We value Porgy and Bess because of its music, a score of which George famously said “The music is so beautiful, I can’t believe I wrote it.” No boast, that, merely an acknowledgment of the mystery of the creative process, an acknowledgment that, I note with respect, has been many times recognized by the greatest black American musical artists of the last 60 years, despite Porgy’s contradictions. The great performances of numbers from Porgy and Bess are still by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Miles Davis. They heard in the score American greatness.

Porgy and Bess, the opera, is still waiting for the unclouded stage realization that lets that greatness shine. 

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Run Rabbit RunIn September of 2010, a long time ago, now, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their season with a performance of John Adams’ orchestral showpiece, Harmonielehre, named after the early 20th-century harmony text by Arnold Schoenberg. I was excited to hear the work live and impressed by Peter Oundjian’s and the TSO’s chutzpah in making a statement with the Adams as the season opener. Less so my seatmate in Roy Thomson Hall.

Surveying the program, he turned to me and said “Watch what happens at intermission.” (The Adams was scheduled for the entire second half of the concert.) “People will be running out of here like rabbits!” “Why,” I asked, soaked in innocence. He jabbed his program next to the date of composition of the Adams. The stark “1985” seemed to make any further conversation unnecessary. “Modern music,” he finally observed, as though I were a bit dim. “But it’s a very accessible piece,” I meekly protested. “They’d enjoy it.” He looked me up and down for the first time, in obvious wonderment. “Like rabbits,” he reiterated.

And he was right. About 25 percent of the seats that had been full of satisfied patrons listening to Mozart and Schumann, or whatever, during the first half of the concert, lay empty in protest at a terrific reading of the Adams. The TSO was probably delighted the bleeding was only a quarter of the house.

I was reminded of my rabbit-predicting friend as I read the New Yorker’s Alex Ross lament the conservatism of Kirill Petrenko’s programming as he assumes the music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic. Not a Harmonielehre in sight (a work now almost 40 years old, by the way), or any other modern repertoire. A bit of Berg and Schoenberg, but that’s it. Ross worries that Petrenko is abandoning the significant role that major symphony orchestras should have in championing the music of now.

But I think Ross is wrong.

Peter OundjianNot that the music of today doesn’t need a champion and a forum. I’ve written before how vital and lively so much of today’s music is. It needs someone to allow it to be heard, after which I’m pretty sure it can stand on its own two artistic feet. I just think it’s past the time when we can expect the enormous, bloated, conservatism-in-their-DNA, institutions like major symphony orchestras and even major opera companies to fully champion the new. They are too feeble, sadly, and financially precarious to avoid going down with the ship of their fanatically demanding traditional audiences. This hasn’t always been the case – witness Oundjian’s calculated risk with the Adams. But that was almost ten years ago. And I fear things are getting worse. Yes, there are individual conductors who clearly believe in the modern. And we have our token pieces of new music dotting symphonic programs everywhere, our polite Festivals of New Music. But these seem in 2019 to smack of a tokenism they did not have even a few years ago. The vital dynamism of new music, in all its fascinating contemporary expression, seems to fit very poorly these days within the frankly 19th-century world of the traditional symphony orchestra. That orchestra’s death-grip connection to social and artistic conservatism may sit well in the increasingly retrogressive political and emotional world in which we surprisingly find ourselves these days, but it can’t house the overflowing creativity of the new music scene with anything other than intermittent success. The grit and determination to tackle the new and face down the rabbit-instinct of those essential older audiences just seems too much to ask of institutions getting increasingly seasick bobbing on the waves of constant financial insecurity.

That’s not to say that classical music should abandon the new – quite the contrary. I still believe that we are on the cusp of a new golden age of serious music, parallelling what happened to pop music in the 60s, 70s and 80s, when high artistic standards lived comfortably with great economic success. Think the classical equivalent of The White Album or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Springsteen’s Born in the USA. It’s just that this explosion and renaissance is not going to be housed in mainstream institutions – it’s going to come at us from the out-of-the-way, the unexpected, the never-heard-of. It’s already happening. Many young composers, rather than waiting for the mainstream to finally find them, are striking out with their own performing ensembles to great effect. Smaller performing institutions, not burdened with the overhead and institutional inertia that inevitably weighs down even the most successful arts operation, are putting together programs and repertoire that is truly original and exciting. Opera Philadelphia, for example, to which the Canadian Opera Company has been quite unfairly compared, has had an enviable record in getting the new on stage. Unfairly compared, because the goals and expectations of the two institutions are quite different. The audiences the Philadelphians attract are more often akin to those of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre rather than those of the Four Seasons main stage. The scale of the two organizations is radically different. But that’s the point – you need both in the world of classical music, especially these days – because, ironically, smaller venues can achieve some goals out of the reach of larger ones.

Even here in Toronto, we have seen a medium-size organization like Tafelmusik maintain its originality while maintaining its financial health and audience loyalty. This upcoming season, with its foray into Tchaikovsky, its several new commissions, and orchestrated Goldbergs, is almost a test case of how, and if, a smaller institution can successfully break new ground. There are other Canadian organizations attempting the same. And many in the United States.

It would take another column and a deeper analysis to sketch out persuasively the main features of a successful ecology of originality and creativity for new musical and arts organizations. Certainly one of the features of the emerging musical universe must be a powerful new understanding of the interconnectedness of world culture so novel that we don’t yet have a word to describe it. Non-Western, diverse, multicultural – these are all terms and ideas so steeped in the cultural chauvinism of the West, so narrow and parochial, that they inevitably defeat the possibility of the very things they purport to celebrate. Instead, we need a new understanding of cultural exploration and cultural joy as a defining feature of our new creativity, which I think will prove both immensely attractive to audiences and a springboard to new and exciting forms of expression. Expecting institutions burdened with a traditional cultural past, a difficult financial present, and a suffocating, leviathan-esque organizational structure, to cope with the demands of a new and emerging world is asking a lot.

Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, it’s too much. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

SpoonsBack in my broadcasting days, I was interviewing a British journalist – this must have been 15 years ago – about the projected demise of classical music.

I said, as I introduced the interview, that the eradication of classical music had been confidently predicted since recording was invented in the late-19th century, but that, although the last rites had been pronounced and the funeral arrangements made, the patient stubbornly refused to die. Then, after my “hello”, he responded with words guaranteed to stop the heart of every broadcaster on earth, trust me. “I’m afraid there’s an error in your introduction.” I gulped, swore to myself, and gamely said “How so?” “Well,” he went on, “you said the demise of classical music has been predicted since the beginning of the 20th century. The first instance I could find of such a statement was 1741!” (That was the year of Messiah, by the way).

I was reminded of this exchange this August while reading accounts of the annual meeting of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, basically an umbrella group pressing for musicians’ rights in the classical field. The usual litany of problems: funding, reduced government support, aging audiences, lack of demographic diversity, labour troubles. And to be fair, those problems are all too real. The economics of classical music, especially at the level of large organizations, are an actuarial definition of hell. Enormous fixed costs with no easy possibility of reducing them – you can’t just eliminate the second violins from a Mozart symphony. Fixed costs that are increasing. A very real limit to how far ticket prices can rise to meet those increased costs without depressing the potential number of buyers, so that higher prices, bizarrely, result in lower revenue. An art form that only finds success with an endless succession of greatest hits programs, thus reducing the ability to attract new audiences not familiar with the established repertoire. And a current audience that, barring great advances in cryogenics, will all be dead in ten years or so. How can this enterprise possibly survive?

But it does, and in some cases, even thrives. Umberto Eco, the famed Italian author, once told a Davos world economic forum audience that some things were never going to be replaced by new technology. His example? The spoon. The spoon will never disappear, he said, because nothing else does what it does as efficiently or as effectively. That’s classical music, to me – it provides an emotional, spiritual and esthetic experience that cannot be replicated, really, by anything else.

That’s not to say that classical music (such a terrible adjective, but it’s ours) is destined to live forever, without any effort taken to husband its resources carefully and provide for its future. It can die. What will keep it alive is not just great performances (although nothing can substitute for them), but a willingness even in these troubled times, I would say, especially in these troubled times, to strike out with boldness and originality in programming, repertoire and presentation to keep the art form vital.

The good news is that the audience problems that cause so many sleepless nights for so many artistic administrators may well solve themselves, as the traditional boundaries between musical genres break down. This, in fact, may well be the most significant development in music over the past 50 years. Classical players now have experience in jazz, pop performers know their opera, world music is blurring all sorts of musical lines. Contemporary musicians of all kinds are comfortable in wide areas of musical style and expertise. This is great news for the classics, because “classical” music, a minority musical niche, can only benefit from this expansion.

I said earlier that classical music was irreplaceable, but I didn’t say why. Classical music is like Umberto Eco’s spoon because it takes music seriously; it is a perfectly suited means of delving deep into music’s full range of techniques, meanings, emotion and power, rather than, as popular music does, happily skimming the surface in the worlds of entertainment and immediate pleasure – not that there is anything wrong with either of these – for the commercial rewards there. Depth doesn’t necessarily sell, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t attract. The fact that the classical gene – the gene for depth – is now being carried by young musicians who know their classics but are comfortable and excited by other forms of music does not mean a contraction of classical music, or a horrible death-spiral of crossover hybrids, whirring into meaninglessness and irrelevance. It means the opposite. It means that the world of classical music will be augmented by new consciousnesses, expanded to include elements of styles that already have their audiences, thereby liberating classical music from its depleting dependencies, both in terms of audience and repertoire.

That’s not to say that my ideal classical institutions wouldn’t include the classics – after all, they’re what got us here in the first place. But the classics can be presented in so many more inviting concertgoing styles than the typical symphony program set in a granite-like unalterability for over a hundred, otherwise changing, years. Nothing forbids orchestras or chamber groups from being a little more imaginative in their programming and presentation. Or even a lot more. Everybody is ready for something new – even the old-guard audiences that terrify precarious mainstream institutions into inertia. The proof of that is everywhere around us – in groups like the highly lauded Against the Grain Theatre, Opera Atelier and the new Tafelmusik, under Elisa Citterio, to name just a few. Even the Toronto Symphony, going through their own rebuild these days (a la the Blue Jays), have done well with their ventures out of the tried and true in the past few years. Many classical institutions are stuck in an artistic Stockholm syndrome, struck immobile by a fear of disturbing the delicate balance that allows them to survive. But disturb it they must – with care, certainly, and intelligence, and taste, but with courage in the end, and a belief in the value of what they have the good privilege to serve up to the world.

The listings in the magazine in your very hands at the moment –or scrollable on your screen – prove the immense ongoing interest in classical music. The precarious nature of the business has not stopped thousands of young people, if not hundreds of thousands, from entering institutions of musical learning annually, declaring their love of the art form by showing a willingness to dedicate their lives to it. Talent is not the problem in the musical world these days. New ideas are. And willingness, both by the venerable institutions that are the art form’s custodians and the audiences that have traditionally supported them, to help midwife the new world of the classics that is straining to be born.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Ronan Mattin, 9, and his grandfather, Stephen Mattin.It was the exclamation heard round the world.

On Sunday, May 11, at the end of a performance of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music performed by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, Ronan Mattin, age nine, after waiting a few seconds to register the music’s close, breathed out an astonished and appreciative reaction.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, out loud, to no one in particular, other than the gods and goddesses of Music, who were surely listening to Ronan in delight. So were the other patrons in the audience, who broke into the laughter of wonderment at Ronan’s spontaneous outburst of musical joy. And now, thanks to the social media tribal drums that encircle the planet, millions of other people have also shared Ronan Mattin’s pleasure.

There is much to say about Ronan’s “wow.” The first is to note that it was not a shout of excitement, if you listen to it, but a contoured exhalation of wonder, a bit of music itself, matching quite exactly the swelling and receding of the final crescendo and diminuendo of the Mozart Funeral Music. It was as though Ronan had added a hidden few bars to the score, finally completing the piece properly for the first time. It’s not impossible to imagine the composing Mozart reacting in exactly the same way as he put the final notes on the manuscript of his work. Ronan joined himself to the music, letting it invade his senses, as we all do, making us part of the music we listen to, our minds and spirit being the instrument on which it is actually played. Most of us observe and feel this swell of sympathy in silence; Ronan, perhaps because he is nine, did not.

And there’s more to say about Ronan’s “wow.” Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music is six minutes of grief and travail, the resigned beauty of darkness illuminated sharply here and there with patches of barely alleviating light. You can hear prefigurations in the Funeral Music of the temple music, the music surrounding Sarastro and his acolytes, that Mozart wrote for The Magic Flute.

And then, at the very end of the piece, having carefully cycled through an immense chord sequence preparing us for a final grief-stricken cadence in C Minor, Mozart pulls a rabbit out of his musical hat and surprisingly ends the piece with one final swelling chord – in C Major, not C Minor, one chord only in this heavenly key. That was the chord that Ronan Mattin reacted to so evocatively. A journey though grief ends with an impossibly beautiful single ray of sunlight, a hint of peace and joy, with a suggestiveness that only music can provide. This is no Tierce de Picardie, a convention that ended minor pieces in the major, that had long passed out of fashion by 1785. This is the divine Mozart making a statement, a hint, really, a whisper, a hint of a whisper, as only he could, about a world he so incompletely understood.

But it was a sentiment that Ronan Mattin, who, we are told, lies on the autism spectrum, (as surely did the composer whose music he was listening to) responded to in a blinding instant. It was not simply the beauty of the music but the surprise and perfection of that last chord that I’m sure forced that exclamation from Ronan Mattin’s lips. Ronan, we have since learned from his family, is essentially non-verbal. He lives his complex and exacting life within an orbit of his own. But music, which so often drives the rest of us into contemplative silence, drove Ronan in the opposite direction – into speech, into the world. A more perfect realization of music’s power would be hard to find – its power to link the internal and the external, the world we share with no one but ourselves and the world we long to share with everyone else. Who can measure the power of recognition, the power of congruence that forced that “wow” from Ronan’s lips. We know, if he does not, that he was speaking that word for us all. And who can imagine how Ronan’s spirit reacted to the main work on the program for which the Masonic Funeral Music was just an appetizer – Mozart’s Requiem. One can only imagine what transpired in his inner world during that kaleidoscope of sentiment and emotion.

So, you might ask, what was Ronan doing in Symphony Hall in the first place that Sunday afternoon? Well, we’ve learned that Ronan was there with his grandfather, who often takes his autistic grandson on musical outings. The Mattins live in New Hampshire, north of Boston. Which leads us to our last question. What manner of man drives an hour and ten minutes on a Sunday afternoon to take his autistic nine-year-old grandson to an authentic instrument performance of Mozart’s Requiem?

A man in a dark age who believes in light, that’s who. A man – and there are so many of us, you know, so many of us – who remembers that the meanness and pettiness with which we are surrounded these days is only one side of the story, however raucous it may be. Who realizes that there is another reality in the world, a reality like the one Mozart created 200-odd years ago, a reality that his grandson must encounter, the sooner the better. Little Ronan Mattin spoke for all of us that Sunday in Symphony Hall, all of us who have been jolted by the discovery of unexpected beauty in the world. It’s shocking when it touches us – it makes us cry out in pleasure, or would if we had the innocence and courage of a New Hampshire nine-year-old. Let’s be thankful Ronan reminded us of what this music business is really all about. It’s not that without music life would be a mistake. Its more that without music, life wouldn’t be life at all.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

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