Thursday, November 03, 2016

Making the case for Karajan


In a comment on my post about Stokowski the technology visionary, Antoine Leboyer observes that "Karajan also understood the importance of the medium as a message... these days, Karajan's and Stokowski's style have made them out of fashion but who has taken their place?" Who indeed? Herbert von Karajan was a technology enthusiast and his close friends included Sony executive Norio Ohga who was a key figure in the development of the Compact Disc. Like Stokowski, Karajan regarded technology as a servant that could help him achieve his artistic ideals. This attitude contrasts sharply with today's leading musicians who see new technology as a master that has to be obeyed without question. Who among today's celebrity maestros is playing an active role in freeing recorded sound from its straightjacket of compression?

Antoine's observation that Karajan's style has gone out of fashion applies far beyond technology. Today it is modish to dismiss Karajan because of his super-sized ego, his political affiliation and his opportunism. But was his self-promotion any worse than that of today's Rolex maestros? Was his self-serving political affiliation any more odious than those of Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel? And was his opportunism any more flagrant than that of the celebrity musicians and orchestras who flock to the ethically-challenged honeypots of the United Arab Emirates and China? But, above all, does the Beethoven and Brahms of contemporary icons such as Gergiev, Dudamel and their peers ever reach the exalted heights of Karajan's?

Discrimination in classical music comes in many nuanced forms. One is the division of great musicians into those who lived before the advent of the internet, and those who live in the internet age. As a result musicians from the pre-internet era such as Karajan and Stokowski who did not conform to the politically correct dictates of accessibility and who did not live their lives in the 24/7 glare of social media are now viewed as aliens from another planet. Music is a universal and timeless language that transcends ephemeral fashions. Like all of us, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski had their faults. But they spoke the universal language of music with great eloquence, and today's musicians can learn much from them.

Image quite appropriately via Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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