A couple of months ago an article was published in the NY Times that presented a concept that even a few years ago might have seemed impossible. When one thinks of a virtuoso pianist it often conjures an image of perfect performances, technical accomplishments of speed and dexterity. The generations before mine (at a humble 23 years old) often regarded virtuosi as a rare commodity placed on a pedestal for the rest of us to adore. My generation is turning that picture on its head and placing cracks within the stone.
All anyone has to do anymore is spend a couple of minutes on YouTube to happen upon countless virtuosi in their teens and twenties. A topic almost for another discussion entirely, the exponentially growing list of piano competitions, which do not operate on a universal rubric, filled with juries of teachers with ulterior motives, naming winner after winner, only adding to the pool of virtuosi. The flux of high-level pianists has two major implications: 1) it creates an even more difficult climate to make a living as a concert pianist and 2) it is and will ultimately lead to a change in the roles of concert pianists.
New generation concert pianists must learn to diversify themselves beyond the typical classical realm. Yes, there exists a duty to preserve the work of past composers and compel the audience to bond with the music of new composers but mastery of the “classical genre” is no longer enough. So what am I proposing? These advanced pianists need to put their spin on other genres: Jazz, Hip-Hop, R&B, Rock, Metal, Progressive, Electronic, etc. Doing so not only provides a marketability reaching into the average American house that views classical music as high fluting and prissy, it also propels the genres themselves forward. Particularly, in genres which rely heavily upon loops, samples, and often ridiculously simple piano parts; a virtuoso’s experience and organic understanding of their instrument can really push the sound into a newer and refined territory.
The audience for “classical concert music” is dying. Literally. Most patrons to solo piano and orchestral concerts are either aspiring young musicians or more often senior citizen who although young in spirit will soon and eventually succumb to the death. Morbid, I know but a reality that must be faced. The Artist must learn to attract a younger crowd but this does not mean that one must sacrifice substance for ticket sales. Genres and roles may and will indeed need to be refreshed and revamped but I see no reason as to why a piano concerto could not be orchestrated for electronic instruments in exchange for traditional orchestral instruments leaving the piano as the single or main acoustic instrument in the composition. (This idea is the basis for the piano concerto I begun writing in early January 2012.)
In allowing for the piano to keep a “traditional feel” and introducing new sound generators (atypical instruments, amplified instruments, electronic instruments, etc.) the composer and performer are better equipped to introduce audience members who would not otherwise be accustomed or willing to sit through a piano concert, a “safe” place to tip-toe into the world of art music.
I have found, from my own experience in directing performances of my solo piano works that if I couple one or two pieces with a film or visual performance made specifically for the work and use lighting to enhance the mood of the piece it draws in the people who have fears and hang ups about “classical” music. (The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is skilled at this, they possess the ability to take forms of dance and music that most people would be laugh at, due to a lack of understanding, and make it captivating for the audience. Ex. BIPED) Using the safety created from such mixed media performances I have found it prepares the listener to fully if not partially embrace a more intricate work which directly follows the mixed media enhanced work. (This also broaches on a topic for further discussion in another post about the accessibility and human relatability of modern-day compositions.)
The future of concert music is in the hands of this current generation. We, young composers and performers, must find away to adapt to the changing world; not necessarily to assimilate ourselves and lose our traditions and cultures but to create a sort of symbiotic relationship lasting into the future.