Critic’s Notebook: Classical musicians and the fame game

“The actor Tony Curtis once told me that fame is an occupation in itself,” Bob Dylan writes in “Chronicles: Volume One,” “that it is a separate thing.”

That separate thing has attached itself onto Gustavo Dudamel, but by all accounts it has not become an occupation. He has gone on Jay Leno’s show and been his good-natured self. For the first of the LA Phil Live simulcasts in movie theaters this month, Dudamel’s sunny disposition allowed him to clown around backstage, give passionate interviews about music and, on the podium, enter into symphonies by Beethoven and Bernstein, and John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” as if possessed. The conductor’s life remains consumed by his zeal for music education and by work. In a few months he will be a father.

But can a level head last?

Examples from recent music history suggest that it can, but not easily. And understanding media, as Marshall McLuhan insisted, is crucial.


Media is not neutral. Technology acts as an extension of our will. Gustavo Dudamel blown up to many times his size and illuminated in a darkened cinema in Tampa or Toronto, while conducting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in a modern concert hall in Los Angeles, is an unimaginable disconnect from the composer conducting the premiere two centuries years ago in Vienna.

We’ve been down that road before, however. In 1940, Leopold Stokowski shook hands with Mickey and conducted Stravinsky on the silver screen. “Fantasia” was perceived by purists as a monstrous (quite literally in the dinosaur animation for “Rite of Spring”) desecration of classical music. But the “Rite” fared just fine in the concert hall over the decades since “Fantasia.” So has the Disney film, newly remastered for Blu-ray with extras galore. So too has Stokowski’s reputation as a great and visionary conductor.

Lesson 1: Use the media to extend music’s reach.

The “Fantasia” era is a good place to begin. Radio was then the dominant mass medium for music. In 1937, NBC created a symphony orchestra for Arturo Toscanini and he became, in America, a household name (although there was much hand-wringing by critics at the time about the selling of classical music).

In the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein became the most celebrated musician in America — music director of the New York Philharmonic at age 40, composer of Broadway hits, successful ballets and important concert works, bestselling author and television personality. With his groundbreaking TV shows “Omnibus” and “Young People’s Concerts,” he brought classical music to millions and turned on a new generation. Although primitive by today’s HD standards, these hugely influential shows are now popular on DVD and still capture the imagination.

Bernstein used his celebrity and access to the media to further great causes (such as inviting Mahler and Ives into the standard repertory). But Bernstein, who had an addictive personality (cigarettes, Scotch, sex), could not help but be fixated by his fame. The more of an icon he became, the harder he found it to compose, forced to compete with his earlier self. In his one-man show, “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” Hershey Felder shows how the god could be a monster. Even so, Bernstein allowed everything to feed him artistically.

Recording became Glenn Gould’s extension. The pianist — subject of last year’s engrossing documentary, “Genius Within” (hello, Oscar nominators) — retired from concert life after a recital at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles in 1964 and devoted his remaining 18 years to a recording studio in Toronto not far from the university where McLuhan taught. The most imaginative pianist of modern times, Gould augmented his artistic and physical reach through new approaches to technology.

Lesson 2: Don’t make the media an occupation in itself, a separate thing.

Would tenor Luciano Pavarotti, conductor Herbert von Karajan and pianist Lang Lang please step onto the lineup?

No great singer has ever been more stunted by fame than Pavarotti. His magnificent voice, charm and innate musicianship made him unique. Then the media glare made him grotesque, never evolving beyond those early glorious performances. Who today wants to watch the ludicrous videos of Pavarotti singing and flirting with the Spice Girls or recall him munching apples onstage while trying to remember his part.

Karajan believed in what he felt was a farseeing approach to the media. Like his contemporary and competitor, Bernstein, the German conductor filmed everything in his later years. But Karajan was devoured by his obsession with his place in history. Watching the parade videos of his concerts and operas over the years is to witness musical ossification, performances like preserved specimens under glass.

Lang Lang is a master of the new media, especially in its proliferating Asian manifestation, but he is also in its thrall. As technology develops ever-new dominating powers, Lang Lang will be the one to watch and worry about, given how the distraction of show business came close to derailing the careers of such great virtuosos as violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

For most stellar artists, however, fame has tended to have both positive and negative influences. Yo-Yo Ma has his artistic ups and downs as a media darling, but he keeps restlessly trying new things. Joshua Bell hasn’t been completely eaten up by the media, although his relentless crossover collaborations haven’t helped him grow artistically either. Fame has been good to the glamorous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko but less so to tenor Rolando Villazón, who not only has had vocal problems but image ones appearing as a judge on “Popstar to Operastar,” Britain’s idiotic “American Idol” of opera.

Esa-Pekka Salonen early on rejected the big-time glamour pushed upon him by the L.A. Philharmonic when he became music director in 1992. Instead, he chose the lesser level of artistic celebrity, which provided him with opportunities to try novel things. Particularly in collaborations with director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola, he has been at the helm of several significant new media approaches to classical music, bringing audiences along with him rather than playing to them.

But there are no real role models for what Dudamel faces from a media in an accelerating process of creating ever new and startling extensions. Our best bet may be to turn once more to Marshall McLuhan for guidance. The 100th anniversary of his birth will be July 21. That’s a Thursday, a night when the L.A. Phil performs in a venue — the Hollywood Bowl — where loudspeakers and video screens extend the reach of the stage to 18,000 people. This is where Dudamel made his U.S. debut five years ago, and that went very well.