As I read the FineArtsLA interview of classical music critic Alan Rich, I thought, this is the kind of criticism that church bloggers need. Let me give a couple examples of what Rich says and then show you how a similar approach could work in our criticism of the church.
... There was a story in the New York Times not too long ago called “Continental Shift.” It has to do with Esa-Pekka and concerts of new music, the management of the Philharmonic and at CalArts and other schools, and it has a little bit to do with Mark and me.
FALA: Why is new music important?
AR: That’s pretty obvious: You can’t play Beethoven and Brahms all your life.
FALA: But aren’t many orchestras content to do that?
AR: They might be content today, but sooner or later people are going to notice.
FALA: Does the audience want to hear new music?
AR: The audience doesn’t want to hear new music exclusively any more than we do. And it doesn’t have to be a piece copyright 2007, but it has to have a sensibility of novelty and intelligent programming.
FALA: So “new music” can include a piece of 200-year-old music that’s underplayed?
AR: Yes, or a piece of 200-year-old music that is well known but that be presented in a different light. When Esa-Pekka did the nine symphonies of Beethoven in his programming last year, he accompanied every one with a new piece of music that in some way, because of the contrast, said something about the Beethoven symphony.
AR: I was the last classical writer for Newsweek. In 1987 I was in Houston covering the world premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” I filed my story, and got a phone call an hour later: They were killing it for a Bruce Springsteen feature.
FALA: What’s changed? Why did Time and Newsweek have so many writers devoted to classical music a few decades ago, and today have none?
AR: Probably a reader poll or something decided it.
FALA: Then why do readers not want to read about classical music?
AR: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.
FALA: In the early days when Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” the last 30 minutes was always devoted to an author. Now there would never be a writer on a late-night talk show. Haven’t you noticed a cultural shift of serious art losing grip over the average citizen?
AR: How could I not notice? It’s my bread and butter.
FALA: Then characterize in your own words what has happened.
AR: I don’t know why it’s happening. It may have been replaced by another kind of access to high culture, it may be because people get their culture from Amazon.com or their iPod.
I have couple of friends who are in musicology at UCLA, and I’ve read some of their term papers and I’m distressed at what passes for studying musicology now because it’s not what I took under Joe Kerman. They’re reading aesthetics. It seems to be secondary whether they listen to music or not.
FALA: It’s theory driven.
AR: It’s totally theory driven.
What Alan Rich sees in classical music is not only the music as an object to be listened to, but a tradition of music making that continues to expand people's perception of what that tradition means. This is quite similar to what Alasdair MacIntyre writes about in After Virtue concerning the difference between tradition understood by Edmund Burke as something fixed, and the understanding of tradition that Aristotle characterizes as the mastering of a craft under the tutelage of a master craftsperson.
In the church, we have the same dilemma. There is the view of tradition that it is a fixed object to be studying and protected from encroachment. It exists as the singing of the same hymns every Sunday because they are the purest representation of this tradition that has been passed on. However that tradition is dead or dying. It is why those conservatives who are Burkean have lost the culture war to those who, unwittingly, have continue to take a new tradition and continue to build on and expand it.
Here Alan Rich is honors, respects and celebrates a thousand year old tradition of music making that continues to stretch its boundaries with new music. I've heard more than once that all contemporary Christian worship is the New Traditionalism. It is not an expansion but a replacement of what has been the tradition in the church.
What I also like in Rich's interview is the underlying notion that concert music in some sense must be difficult for it to be interesting. Not difficult in being intolerable, but difficult as a challenge to learn and experience what is being offered. This not what I find in the church. The challenge is to stay awake.
When Alan Rich describes what Essa-Pekka Salonen did with the Beethoven symphonies, mixing them with different music to put them into a different listening context, so that the audience would hear them in a fresh way, I thought of how this is what is missing in the church. Why is it?
Why is that we don't understand our tradition as something living? Why is it that we think of the church and the Christian faith as something fragile and so weak that it must be housed in the protective, hermetically seal container of the church as we know it.
What Alan Rich does as a critic is love the tradition without becoming a shill for it. He knows it, loves it, thinks deeply about it and practices a craft of criticism that elevates the perception and appreciation for the classical music tradition by all who come into contact with his words.
We are at an odd transition point in the life of the church. To a large extent, especially in my church tradition of Presbyterianism, we are dominated by my generation whose formative experience in the church has been a mixture of social activism and denominational schism. What has been lost in the midst of the past forty years of conflict is a larger picture of what our tradition truly is.
As critics, we need to celebrate the tradition and demand that it grow within its tradition. This is happening because a new generation of leaders are emerging that see something there that my generation has lost sight of. When I go to church on Sunday, I am brought into a tradition of music making that elevates my perception and appreciation of not only the past, but also the reach of the church. We sing the traditional hymns. We do call and response prayers. We hear music out of a global milieu of church music that wakes me up to the presence of Christ in the service. It has not always been this way, but it is now. And I suspect, in many churches, this is also beginning to happen.
The critic's job is love the tradition while never succumbing to sycophancy. To explore the inner reaches of the tradition to tell why it is and where it is going. Alan Rich is a good example of a master craftsman of the craft that we bloggers could all do well to follow.