by Melinda Whiting
It's been said that the quality that most unites America as a nation is our
diversity. Whoever the source, s/he must have meant more by "diversity" than
simply our kaleidoscope of ethnicities. Instead, this diversity encompasses the
huge variety of tastes, interests, and enthusiasms that Americans feel free to
pursue; and the complicated landscape of religions, regional histories, and
family ties by which they define themselves. This empowering and bewildering
diversity distinguishes us from nations that are based on common history,
heritage, and, yes, ethnicity.
In a diverse society like ours, fragmentation is a real risk. Several hundred
million individuals calling themselves a nation must share something, after all,
in order to stick together. And apart from high-flown rhetoric about our
Constitution and democratic values (both all too easily bent to the political
purposes of whichever individual is invoking them at the moment), the
indefinable culture that we share has historically been most clearly expressed
in our enthusiasm for--what?
Until recently, I'd have said the answer was movies. Movies have been our
constant and universal entertainment for a century (perhaps to the detriment of
concerts and home music-making, with attendant effects on the popularity of
classical music--but that's a different column). What American can't relate to
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding a final farewell as the plane's
propellers fire up and the strings swell in the background?
The soundtrack to such classic moments usually--and far more often than I
realized before reading his memoir, A Fiddler's
Tale, excerpted in this issue--features the mellow violin of Louis
Kaufman, either as concertmaster of the studio orchestra or as its eloquent
soloist. In Hollywood's golden age, Kaufman was the go-to man for gorgeous,
heart-twisting solos, at a time when the composers of film scores actively drew
on references from classical concert music. Back then, in fact, movies were the
primary way for many Americans to hear any orchestral music. And because this
classically derived music provided much of the emotional power of the films it
served (read Kaufman's fascinating anecdote about Of Human Bondage), at
least two or three generations grew up with the orchestra as a familiar and
meaningful sonority. Talk about product placement!
Today, movie soundtracks draw on a much wider range of musical genres than 50
years ago, and they depend upon sound effects as often as upon music for their
emotional éclat. So movies are no longer the penetrating promotional device they
once were. But as orchestras contemplate ways to connect with their modern
audiences, it would be a real breakthrough to figure out the modern parallel:
Today, what strategy could equal those grand old film soundtracks in subtly
securing the ear of millions of Americans?
The answer probably has something to do with television, a force that
classical-music advocates must accommodate in any case. And
it may have a great deal to do with the Web. But both these media lack the
unifying force that movies once had. They are divided into myriad
special-interest channels, on the one hand, and an overwhelming proliferation of
special-interest web pages, on the other--evidence of the very fragmentation
that continually threatens our unity as a culture. Perhaps, in echo, there are
many answers rather than one big answer. Or perhaps it's as simple as
identifying where each community's heart and soul is (its schools? its baseball
team?) and finding a way to position the orchestra squarely, even if subtly, at
the center of that place.
Otherwise, I fear, we allow ourselves to become a mere fragment, just another
special interest, "fine for people who like that sort of thing." But I am not
satisfied to have classical music pushed into its own little pigeonhole, and I
suspect you are not, either. We all want to see it pervading our culture;
"everywhere" is the right place for an art form that encompasses every human
After all, that's why it worked so well in those old movies.
Melinda Whiting is Editor in Chief of SYMPHONY.