[the first thing you learn in the ship world is that folks get upset if you call their beautiful vessel a "boat" instead of a "ship"]
Almost exactly a year ago, I embarked the MS Eurodam, a 2000-passenger cruise ship of Holland America Line. It was definitely not in my plans to ever work on a ship - I am generally distrustful/afraid of the ocean, nor do I like the water. But I guess the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability, and so there I was, walking on the gangway in Fort Lauderdale Port as the pianist of the inaugural piano quintet of Lincoln Center Stage, a brand new partnership between Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and HAL.
HAL's level of commitment to present high quality classical music through Lincoln Center Stage is unprecedented to my knowledge, and it is a blessing for classical music. They bought brand new Steinways for their ships, commissioned dozens of emerging and established composers/arrangers to write fabulous arrangements for the quintet, and treated us very well. The program continues to expand and thrive.
As someone who feels most alive when engaging with current events, being active in local communities, and surrounded by friends, it was difficult to be disconnected from the world for such a long time - I was honestly so happy to be done when I finished my contract (the first thing I did was use the internet non-stop for about 20 hours) - but reflecting on the experience now, it’s clear it had a profound impact on the way I think about classical music.
The way the program is set up is this: our repertoire is about half standard classical, half from other genres (think: Dave Matthews Band, Dave Brubeck, Led Zeppelin, Jobim...). We offer about a dozen different carefully crafted programs, always interspersed with musicians passing around the mic and talking about the music. The average passenger is on board for a week. At the beginning of the week, we put on the programs that are most approachable - a mixed bag of either non-classical arrangements, or an especially exciting/moving movement from this or that classical piece. As the week goes on and we cultivate relationships with the audience, and the audience gets into the habit of listening attentively and trusting our program offerings, we would program increasingly more “serious” classical music, pinnacling with Brahms’ Piano Quintet.
And it worked!! It was quite normal to see our venue packed, with passengers standing in the aisle as far as they could still hear, everyone hushed to listen even as crew members bustled along the aisle for the entire 40 minutes of the Brahms. Week after week, with new batches of passengers, this process was repeated. In the dining halls, I would constantly be approached by passengers eager to learn more about music or about my life. On the elevator I would be asked, "When are you playing Beethoven again?"
As much as I missed land life, there I was, building relationships with wonderful strangers through classical music every day AND fostering positive relationships between passengers and classical music. It validated not only my work on the ship but the position of classical music in the world, when passengers would tell me with great fervor how moved they were by our music, or how they’d never interacted with classical music in a setting like this and how much more meaning the music holds in this kind of setup, or how they’ve never been interested in classical music before but they were going to buy CDs as soon as they got home. In this field where it seems like there's an overabundance of music organizations constantly exhausting the same, small, audience/patron pool, this felt like such a hopeful victory.
I’ve thought a lot about this since my time on the ship (and have been thinking about it for the last decade, really). (WARNING: Here, my rant starts.) On the one hand, it’s non-negotiable that musicians are committed to the highest standard of artistry. That includes working tirelessly on details that may not be noticed by 99% of the population, or committing to perform an extremely complex piece written in the 1960's that 99% of the population would not care to listen to. If art bows down to the standards and tastes of the masses, I don’t think it’s art anymore. On the other hand, why do musicians turn their noses up at performing pieces that have been popularized? If you have the chops to play a Ligeti etude, just freaking sit down, shove aside your ego, and play the most artistic version of Clair de Lune when people ask for it at a party - it takes like zero preparation/brain power. Engage first, and then stretch their boundaries. I think in addition to working on pieces we find artistic satisfaction in, every musician should also have a pops program ready to go that we can pull out at any time, for that - probably unexpected - situation we finds ourselves in when given the opportunity to allure new listeners into the classical music world. Again, this would take so little time/energy to have ready in our bag of tricks. And, by the way, igniting interest in a new listener is not a process that needs to take a long time - on the ship, we had classical music converts within a couple performances. Better yet, every musician should have the skill to craft programs that carefully thread together these divisions of “popular” or not, in a way that satisfies our notions of artistry and creativity. We are all ambassadors to classical music, I want to emphasize to fellow classical musicians.
The balance in the economics of classical music is very off today. There are so many musicians and organizations presenting classical music as “high art” where there is so little demand for it. A better model, I think, is if the majority of classical musicians instead shifted their work to recruiting new audience members, without being afraid of playing for the masses. I used to think that if the setting was inviting and if I spoke tactfully enough about the music I'm playing, I could play whatever repertoire I thought was most artistically interesting and sophisticated. I'm finding out that sometimes, we also have to bend the repertoire to the occasion. It's a fine balance of staying true to your artistic vision vs. attracting audiences, and finding that sweet spot that satisfies both, and it's a topic to be explored throughout a musician's life. My next big projects will be along this line - stay tuned!
[Below is a mini clip from Lincoln Center Stage, playing Nathan Koci's arrangement of Indifference, a French musette]