We all know who we thought we’d prefer to have a couple of beers with back in 2000. And, I guess, in 2004. Now months away from the Democratic National Convention that will decide between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, questions of palatability and personality are once again raised in the same breath. Individuals who do their work in public view – whatever work it is – must confront how their visibility affects the task at hand.
Presentation – be it of a stump speech, a policy lecture or a sonata performance – changes how we receive information.
Classical musicians can face backlash against their attempts to distinguish themselves from one another in qualities other than sound, although sound is purportedly the quality they’re being judged on. Not every potential record buyer or Hill Auditorium occupant’s ear is fine-tuned to the craft. But there are some messages performers send, usually visual, that are casual enough for all viewers to understand. But gilding the lily with extraneous gestures and convulsions adds to a cult of personality whose role in judging creative material is dubious.
The 27-year-old rising conductor, Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, has been called a prodigy and the most exciting thing to happen to classical music since Leonard Bernstein. Dudamel has both the looks – animated, virulent coils of hair and a face that recalls Heath Ledger – and the moves, athletic and ecstatic. Basically, he covers the bases of what most of us imagine conductors are here for, and the public loves him for it.
His ridiculous rise to prominence – Dudamel has been raking in unlikely honors since he was a teenager and earlier this year was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s next music director – hinges on his talent, but is given momentum by his marketability. For an institution that needs to market itself to private donors, public funding and ticket buyers, public adoration of a masthead is hardly an afterthought.
A recent “60 Minutes” episode that featured Dudamel quoted the L.A. Philharmonic’s president, Deborah Borda: “Gustavo has an ability to communicate what is passionate and vital about music in a very 21st century way.” He’s newsworthy largely for that potential to reach out to new audiences who are apt to judge unfamiliar performances, at least initially, by a familiar standard: charisma.
Earlier this month, The New York Times published a bristling cultural critique denouncing classical pianists who develop their image through “histrionics.” Bernard Holland wrote of the small crisis this approach creates, saying competitive performers “were taking part in a system that asks them to use Beethoven and Schumann as ways to sell themselves.”
Holland argues that a spectacular approach to performance may not only distance those new viewers it seeks to seduce, but compromise the material itself.
“Music is asked to stand in line and wait its turn,” he said. When performers mug, they predigest the material they’re supposed to help their audience confront.
Prioritizing content and presentation may be the task of all competing for public attention. Another New York Times article, discussed the differences between Clinton and Obama, so far as the phenomenon of “cult of personality” goes.
Noism, Japan’s first resident contemporary dance company, demonstrated the advantages of putting the material first in their Ann Arbor debut at the Power Center on Friday.
“I try not to just have drama in myself before I go to the studio,” said Jo Kanamori, the company’s founder, artistic director and choreographer. “Then it is my personal drama and it’s boring. I try not to decide drama myself.”
The payoff of that organic approach, one that probably makes any PR person a bit nervous, is hard-won but rich. The Power Center, encouragingly full, cheered and applauded between scenes until the music overwhelmed their applause and the next remarkable scene began.
The company’s name announces their method in an easy-to-miss pun: no “-ism,” as in, their approach to dance does away with schools of thought on dance. The company risks being difficult to define, having no nametag to reassure a potential audience member or host venue of what they can expect to watch.
According to Kanamori, the piece presented on Friday “was just a question of studying how to stand.” He insisted that he starts not with the impression he wants to give – Holland’s “histrionics” or politicians’ much-criticized performances – but with the material itself.
“Before you know what you want to say, you have to know what you have,” Kanamori said.
His task is no doubt simpler than that of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. After all, if he insists we are to judge his dances by what his dancers’ movements feel like, most audience members have ample practice in reacting to people in space. Politicians, who stand for certain policies, find themselves marketing themselves to people less schooled in policies than they are in people.
For Kanamori and his company this past weekend, everything lined up. For the members of the 2008 race for the White House, they have their ambiguous work cut out for them.
Colodner has no idea who she’ll vote for. Tell her who she should at email@example.com