Preservation of World Cultural Heritage: National Strategies and Global Challenges

Presentation given by pianist Daniel Pollack at the 2016 St. Petersburg Plenary Opening Session, Russia – December 2, 2016



My Russian musical colleagues have called me their “musical grandchild.” Here is how this started more than 50 years ago, really a lifetime…

This Forum is focusing on our World Cultural Heritage, as well as national strategies, so I will start with my own country…

We are a young country, only 240 years old. We do not have the splendid cultural arts traditions and history that have flourished in Europe for so many centuries and have continued through today. Russia, on the other hand, has a glorious tradition that lasted centuries and that has engaged the global cultural arts world. As to the United States, an outcome of the horrific wars and cultural and political turmoil of the beginning and really through the middle of the 20th Century, is that we welcomed some of the musical greats to our country, such as Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Fritz Kreisler, Bruno Walter, Georg Solti, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Toscanini, Rudolf Serkin, Rosina and Josef Lhevinne and more, and some of these great artists, became mentors to our young talents and their artistry entered our musical consciousness and we absorbed this into our own musical culture. And so, during the midst of the historic Cold War between our countries, two young American pianists came to Moscow for the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and surprised the Russians, for the outcome was not supposed to be like that…

But both Van Cliburn and I had the good fortune to have a mentor and teacher in Rosina Lhevinne, who herself is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and whose name is on the legendary Gold Wall and so – I became, and happily remain, a musical grandchild of the great Russian musical heritage.

In the late 19th and 20th Century, our country became more engrained in the cultural arts and nurtured and expanded all the arts and built some of the most gorgeous concert halls and museums in the world, carved out its place in the cultural world, and brought our own greats, like composers Gershwin, Copeland and Barber and singer like Maria Callas and conductor like Leonard Bernstein to the attention of the world and who became popular in Russia. Culture became an intrinsic part of the joys of everyday life. And of course, we had a diverse culture that included such popular artists such as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.

But in the last decades of the 20th century and into this century, the electronic recorded world entered our very social fabric of our societies and the range of entertainment options within one’s own home afforded distractions and choices never seen before. These greatly impacted the populous view of the cultural arts worldwide, and it will take every passionate creative mind in the world to bring the cultural arts back into the centerfold.

The way people listen to music has totally changed. Few people sit around today listening to albums end-to-end. Just think, though only a third of US adults attended a cultural event in person last year, 71% reported using the Internet to watch, listen, stream or download culture in one form or another.  However, classical music does not do well in this model. It is designed for focused, uninterrupted listening—a model that nowadays more or less only exists for live music. Even the most impressive home theaters cannot reproduce the magic of live performances – particularly when it comes to classical music and opera, among the last unamplified forms of music. Just recently the New York Times commented that, “if you want to really hear the texture and nuances of a Mahler symphony’s fortissimo, or a dramatic soprano who can send chills up and down your spine, then you have to hear it in a live concert.”

Art museums, on the other hand, have remained more popular than live classical concerts and for a very real reason. It is more interactive and experiential, which is more popular today than sitting quietly in a concert hall and waiting for the music to send a thunderbolt to your heart. I think sometimes that the freedom of how to experience art — just walking around a museum and viewing and stopping at one’s own pace, affords the flexibility that a live concert doesn’t, creating different experiences for different people. I also think it does well as a “tourist” attraction, for instance, who would go to Paris and not visit the Louvre just as a historical landmark? Or the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg? Just think — the Musee D’Orsay in Paris alone had 4 million visitors last year, while in the US alone, 61 million people visited museums, nationally.

I think that we should stop comparing classical arts with the pop industry. The pop industry will always be alive and well and inspire momentary pleasure, whether singing, dancing or just as entertainment.

Classical music has literally no replacement for what it offers. The kind of art that classical music makes possible, scratches a very particular cultural itch—an itch that seems to have remarkable staying power. That’s why its proponents are so passionate. There are few other genres that routinely inspire its listeners to seek out different interpretations of the same piece (jazz does, for instance).

Over the past 120 years, entire genres have evolved to meet the new musical reality of the technological revolutions of recording, broadcasting, and online streaming. How, where, and why we use music has completely changed since the 1890s. Unfortunately, for classical music to survive some feel we have to “modernize” productions and re-create opera into contemporary settings, or produce a Shakespeare play in modern dress with the English language in a modern dialect. I say, we leave the very essence of these historical truths alone, and let’s create our own new art form that belongs in our century.

A better way to insure survival of classical music is to recognize that today’s young folks are in tune with dissonance. They relate to that sound. As one young student once asked me, “Are you guys going to keep playing the history stuff?” We need to be more inclusive of contemporary classical music and absorb it into the standard repertoire. Our programs need to be more in line with today’s tastes and more balanced with the new.

Classical music’s survival also lies in early musical education. There is a statistic that adults who were educated in music at an early age, go to live concerts four times more often than adults who received no early musical education. And so, if you can sing a Tchaikovsky melody at the age of 6, you will take that into adulthood. I witnessed personally this education when I toured Russia in the Soviet Union days. And in effect, the Russian audiences remained one of the most engaged musical audiences in the world.

We live at a time that does not particularly value live music as an art form, yet I feel strongly that it is up to the performer to galvanize an audience – and engage even the most musically uneducated audience with emotional content, leaving them changed. Some may say this is not possible, but I have witnessed the long line of people staying up all night for a Vladimir Horowitz concert hoping to get a ticket when the box office opens in the morning. I know, I was there…

Classical music has not lived this long simply because no one has had the heart to put it down. Music provides us with solace and strength. Perhaps after listening to Brahms’ Requiem, alongside other human beings, we re-enter the world more prepared to engage with compassion.