January 20, 2018
Parsing the now and divining what's next: in newspaper column, David Amado explores "what makes art great"
Jim Graham

What makes art great? And what quality elevates art from the realm of decor to greatness — independent of broad appeal?

Let’s recall an evening in 1913 for some answers. May 29 of that year saw the premiere of the Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky collaboration: "The Rite of Spring." That night is rightfully remembered as a riotous watershed moment in music history.

At the brand-new Théatre Champs-Elysées in Paris, two audience factions — one wealthy and conservative, the other progressive and penniless — had shouting matches during the performance, effectively drowning out the music. Objects were thrown; patrons were thrown out; general chaos reigned.

Stravinsky, so upset by the ruckus, sneaked backstage to watch the performance from the wings. Nijinsky, the choreographer, shouted counts to the dancers who, because of the battle in the audience, could not hear the orchestra. It was a memorable evening.

The dress rehearsal, the day before, was attended by some Parisian taste-makers, who surely primed the pump for the opening-night row. Firsthand accounts remember that it was not the music – or even the dancing – that ignited the evening, but the appearance of the conductor (now THAT’S conducting!).

The audience began their booing and hissing in anticipation, rather than as a result of, the music or dance. Though there was plenty to offend the conservatives — from brash primitivistic dissonances to pigeon-toed stomping — it seems that the spark that set off the fire was well-planned and the audience, as well as the performers, were engaging in their own kind of theater.

The riot quickly became the story. A weaker ego might have been indelibly scarred by what could have easily been interpreted as failure. Stravinsky might have told himself the age-old ego-driven story that dismisses failure with disdainful condescension, convinced that the future will appreciate what the present cannot.

But Stravinsky must have known that the work was a success. It was an honest reflection of the time and place in which it was written and elicited an impassioned and vociferous response.

In Stravinsky’s "Rite," we can sometimes invent direct musical expressions of particular circumstances — like the competing factions at the premiere mirrored by Stravinsky’s use of bitonality: the simultaneous existence of two unrelated keys creating crunching dissonances built of friendly tonal sororities.

Sometimes, though, the zeitgeist is represented more broadly. The story of "The Rite of Spring" — one of renewal through sacrifice — seems like both an omen and a plea when we realize the outbreak of World War I was less than two years away. The terrors that would soon erupt are woven into every bar of the score. The cultural genome is the inescapable recipe for art. Great art carries the essence of its time and culture.

That is how old works born of a particular time and place find such resonance with us now. There is a kind of cultural dominant trait that has been passed down from long ago, that somehow still resonates deeply within us — something eerily familiar — like seeing your mother’s eyes in the face of a stranger.

That sense is what makes art "great." It is what allows art to operate independent of time while being so firmly rooted in it. It is both reflective of its origins while helping articulate the future — art as an oracle.

As such, great art can be a de facto tool for parsing the now and divining what’s next. It tells us who we were and guides us toward who we will become. That night in 1913 seems timely and relevant now: battling factions, patriarchy, religious extremism. The story of 1913 is our story, too. Where does that trajectory — defined by then and now — take us?

At a time when we are struggling with national identity, battling long-accepted dysfunction and searching for meaning and context in noise, we should turn ourselves to art. We should wander galleries, engaging with the art and the artist. Listen to live music; see live theater.

Art speaks. Spending the psychic capital to engage and hear what it says helps move the cultural battles out of an arena where they jeopardize decorum, civility and democracy, and morphs them into dialogues, putting them where they belong — in the realm of art — even if it means an occasional riot at the symphony.

David Amado is celebrating his 15th season as music director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.

 

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