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7/28/08
Happy Birthday, We’re Still Dead
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What is it with classical music’s neverending obsession with birthdays?

I am certainly not the first person in the world to point out the birthday problem, but it’s astonishing to think that this fetish continues, year after year. Each year starting around March and continuing through the summer, I cull through stacks of press releases from arts presenters, as birthdays of important composers and performers are announced with great fanfare for the upcoming season, and programs are constructed around them. This year’s birthdays include Puccini (150th birthday), Bernstein (90), Messiaen (100), Karajan (100), and Leroy Anderson (100). In 2009, we have Mendelssohn’s 200th to look forward to, and then there are the death anniversaries, like Haydn (1732-1909) and Handel (250 years dead). Even while I acknowledge that many of our best recognized and well-loved composers are dead, why must we constantly emphasize what year these people were born and died, their … deadness?

PBS’s own arts programs are sometimes part of this general trend, one example being a 2004 program celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. An entire summer industry in New York has formed around Mozart, namely the Mostly Mozart Festival, which itself celebrated a 40th birthday in 2006 (and Mozart’s 250th). Here’s the thing: I love Don Giovanni and the Sinfonia Concertante, for instance, as much as anyone. But Puccini, to name another of this year’s birthday boys, is just as good whether he was born 149 or 150 years ago. I think it’s selling Mozart and Puccini as brands that I object to.

Now, I’m all for celebrating LIVE people, like Leon Fleisher, who turned 80 on July 23, or Elliott Carter, who turns 100 in December. The esteemed Beaux Arts Trio, which turned 50 years old in 2005, is making a farewell tour this year, with its final performance scheduled for August 21 at Tanglewood. It’s great to have lots of chances to hear all these musicians and their music this year. They deserve it. But this obsession with birthdays is so unimaginative, and not a particularly good way to brand the classical-music biz, either. (At least sometimes classical musicians can spoof this obsession. The Composer Is Dead, a work for orchestra by Nathaniel Stuckey with narration by Lemony Snicket, has been making the rounds as a humorous introduction to classical music for children.)

Anthony Tommasini’s article in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, about the Festival of North American Orchestras, scheduled to launch in 2011, included some interesting quotes on festival programming, including one from the New York Philharmonic’s future music director, Alan Gilbert: “Anything that pushes orchestras to think in a creative way is useful.” Among other things he seemed to indicate a weariness with old formulas for presenting concerts to the public. I’d love to see equal creativeness in terms of marketing concert music, and stopping our birthday obsession would be a good start.

  • Tom Reingold

    I think birthdays are an arbitrary but fair way to give all the interesting artists equal coverage, or at least try to. We could use their high school graduation dates instead, but they’re not distributed evenly around the calendar. And not everyone graduated from high school, but everyone was born.

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