Just as people have different tastes in food, they have different tastes in the “art” they enjoy and appreciate, and, for the most part, people tend to rate more highly art and food that they enjoy. I will submit that, while people should be allowed to enjoy what they enjoy in food and art, there are food dishes that are markedly superior to what most people would claim is “the best” and there are books, paintings, performances, and musical compositions that are superior to what is popular.
This past weekend I saw two performances of the opera Little Women [and, yes, there is such an opera] as performed by the local university’s opera theatre, which, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit was produced and directed by my wife the professor. The opera was commissioned roughly twenty years ago by the Houston Opera, and when performed by the Houston Opera in 2000, was recognized as a masterpiece by The New York Times and other critics, and a television production was then done by the Houston Opera for the 2001 PBS Great Performances series. A few hundred people saw the university production, and the audience was very receptive and enthusiastic. The professional musicians who saw it rated it highly.
Three weeks before, some of the same singers participated in a choral extravaganza in the same theatre – and the music was all 1970s rock and roll. More than a 1,000 people filled the theatre, and the audience went wild. The professional musicians thought it was “fun,” but quite a number questioned why a university’s classical music program was putting on a rock and roll concert. The chorus director replied that it was to build support for the music program, and to increase attendance, despite the fact that the music program is designed for two groups of students – those who will teach the basics of music in secondary school and those who will play or sing professionally, either classically or semi-classically.
The vast majority of the people who attended the rock and roll concert did not attend the opera. I have no problems with that. Nor do I have problems with rock and roll concerts.
What I have a problem with is the tacit admission by the Music Department, by putting on both concerts, that rock and roll is on the same level of expertise and excellence as operas, symphonies, oratorios, art song, or chamber music. While I will admit that there are actually a handful of popular rock and roll and country music performers with excellent classical training, the vast majority couldn’t do vocally or instrumentally what most graduating seniors in the good music programs across the country do on a daily basis.
Liking what you like is fine, but popularity is not excellence, and that’s something that is getting lost more and more in a culture that rewards the bottom line far more than excellence.