Rude Awakenings

The concept of the Hollywood Casting Couch is not news. (See: Harvey Weinstein.) Neither is the idea that comedians have a dark side. (See: Woody Allen, Louis C.K.) And yet, many of us are uniquely dismayed by revelations of egregious behavior on the part of practitioners of High Art. (See: James Levine.)


And as Claire Dederer put it beautifully a few weeks back: what do we do with the art of monstrous men

These questions have been on my mind for years -- long before the floodgates opened by #metoo. 

Beautiful music brought to you by an anti-Semite and an alleged paedophile. 

Beautiful music brought to you by an anti-Semite and an alleged paedophile. 

When I was a teenager, I felt that if I weren't going to be a musician, I'd "want to be Charlie Rose." So before starting graduate school in violin performance in 2003, I interned for him in New York City. A reporter from Business Insider called me on November 11. Thankfully, I had nothing unsavory to disclose about my experience working on his show. 

From the sound of things, I was lucky. But like most female musicians, I have plenty of stories involving unwanted sexual advances from men in positions of power over me. 

There was the studio concertmaster in his 70s who aggressively grabbed my face in a nearly empty room. "Let me take a look at you," he said, as he roughly turned my head from side to side. He repeated this at a later time in an empty hallway. Subsequently, I went out of my way to avoid this man. In front of others thereafter, he would say things like: "why aren't you nice to me anymore? You used to smile at me." This had the smell of gaslighting fueled by rage over my lack of compliance. 

There was the married first violinist of a well-known American string quartet, who offered to give me private lessons -- with repeated invitations to the hot tub afterward. My solution, as the student who shouldn't turn down the "opportunity:" I brought my entire quartet with me. During a festival-wide outing to a movie, he sat next to me, and in the theater's darkness, stroked my face when I laughed. After the first time, I froze; after the second, I left.

I could describe many more situations that made me uncomfortable in music. But this isn't a #metoo post. I mention these instances because of how they fell into a larger personal revelation. It came about as a result of my experiences with both men and women. It was hastened by the disappointing and revealing behavior of both peers and elders. And it stayed under my skin for years. 


I want to believe in music's spiritually ennobling effect. But sometimes -- often --  it doesn't elevate character the way I want or expect it to.

See: Gesualdo (murderer). Wagner (anti-Semite). Benjamin Britten (eyebrow-raising interest in teenage boys).  Their music? Phenomenal. Their integrity? Questionable to deplorable. 

Of course, the above are deliberately general examples. But in their extremity, they succinctly prove the point.

Like most musicians, I'd heard rumors about James Levine since the '90s. Rumors aren't fact. And yet, I suspect I've been protected by them.  

Teachers issued me warnings about other teachers. Over the years, I've marveled at how certain well-known pedagogues, notorious for sexually abusing their students, are able to stay at their respective institutions. In fact, the schools in question routinely settle cases on these teachers' behalves. It's as if they're not replaceable. 

Surely, they are. The refusal to shake things up betrays either an overestimation of the value of musical greatness or moral and institutional laziness. Maybe both. Who knows how much room there would then be for decent and capable musicians -- especially women, and people of color -- were perpetrators routinely ousted? 

While talking this over with Meredith the other day, we agreed that we couldn't in good conscience champion the contemporary music of living composers who, in our best judgement, are of unsavory character. We are more motivated to promote the new music of people we like and respect. 

Dead composers are a completely different story. The scrim of time has a distancing effect above and beyond the abstract nature of music itself, which makes it a bit easier to separate the art from the artist. For me, listening to Gesualdo is far easier than, say, watching Louis C.K. blithely go on about compulsive masturbation in light of what we know now.

Being a musician involves so much one would expect to elevate the soul. To become great, a musician must be self-reflective, receptive to feedback from those with valuable insight, and capable of imagining others' experiences. A great chamber musician in particular must be sensitive to the subtlest non-verbal cues from others. (Being sensitive to the verbal ones goes a long way, too.) Shouldn't that musical honesty, receptiveness, imagination, and sensitivity translate into character-building self-awareness, humility, and empathy? 

I was profoundly inspired by the wisdom and charisma of my most beloved mentors. My most meaningful friendships were with other students of music. And of course, the music itself made me feel alive. It connected me to people, ideas, and feelings beyond myself. 

Music provides insight into the human condition by way of timeless aural metaphor. Its resonance sets sympathetic vibrations in motion within. I certainly felt, and feel, that my musical experiences have made me a better person. 

All this made my decision to become a professional musician meaningful, compelling, and self-evident. 

Culturally, too, we deify those who perform, compose, write, or paint like gods among men.  It's as if we believe Art bestows Greatness -- emotional and spiritual -- on its pratictioners. (Somehow, we expect less of athletes, who can be just as super-human in different ways.) High Art Simply Lends Itself to Capital Letters. 

Exhibit A: Our own publicity photo. Elevated much?

Exhibit A: Our own publicity photo. Elevated much?

Seeing the truth and beauty great artists make possible inspires and elevates us. We hunger to know what they are like as people. Whenever Yo-Yo Ma comes to town, someone inevitably remarks on the correlation between his character and his musicianship.  While I have a hard time imagining that, as Peter Gelb claims, the Met was unaware of decades worth of rumors swirling around James Levine, I can easily imagine that he was trotted out like a show pony for marketing and fundraising purposes. The loftiness of great artists opens minds, hearts, and wallets.

But at what cost? I’m not just talking about institutionally-condoned child abuse and sexual harassment. Classical music has long suffered from Ivory Tower Syndrome. Spiritual, emotional, and intellectual grandiosity are some of its strongest selling points. And yet, the fetishization of great art and artists — distancing it, and them, from the rest of us — plays right into the conundrum in which my industry chronically finds itself. I shared a dark thought with my husband after the James Levine story broke: “well, at least he’s Making Classical Music Relevant Again!”

I look for evidence of a composer's personality or life experience in his music. Yet I also believe music exists independently of its creators. I'll admit that, on occasion, I've noticed myself compartmentalize through motivated reasoning.

Meaning: if I want to like a Wagner piece (for no other reason than because it's beautiful), I'll concede that the music exists independently of him as a man. But if I'm fascinated by how a composer's life and personality play out in the score, I'll accept that the man and his music are intrinsically connected.

The extent to which I separate the artist from his work isn't always an either/or. More often than not, it's both/and. 

This came up when we gave Sigfried Idyll the Sounds Genius treatment a few years back.  I've been revisiting the question as our culture wonders anew whether it's ok to watch Woody Allen or Roman Polanski anymore.

I can speculate all I want; better to ask a composer. Recently, I asked both my husband Philip and good friend Reena whether they believe they personally are reflected in their work. Their answers were both validating and unsatisfying. They were also in agreement. When it comes to separating the composer from the music, they said, you both can and you can't.

I am reminded of On Children, a Khalil Gibran poem Philip shared with me when we first started dating:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, 
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Even God, apparently, favors the creator who is uncorruptable. But if what we give life to comes through us and not from us, why can't it be wholly pardoned the sins of the father? 

It's not like music is the only profession one would expect to ennoble its practitioners. It must take a tremendous amount of nobility of purpose to dedicate the time and care required to become a physician. And yet, there are plenty of crooked doctors. Likewise, the law must attract those who value justice. And yet, lawyer jokes abound. I've already mentioned teachers who, charged with the nurturance of young people, abuse their access to them in disturbing ways.

Don't even get me started with priests. 

Turns out doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests, musicians, and everyone else have something obvious in common. They're all human beings. 

Antonio Vivaldi: A priest, teacher, and musician who composed hundreds of masterpieces for orphaned girls. Whether he gifted them anything less pleasant, we'll never know.

Antonio Vivaldi: A priest, teacher, and musician who composed hundreds of masterpieces for orphaned girls. Whether he gifted them anything less pleasant, we'll never know.

Last week, I read a wonderful article by Paul Bloom in the New Yorker. It makes a sobering hypothesis: that our human capacity for empathy and cruelty come from the same place. We may be wrong to assume that acts of brutality arise from the dehumanization of the other. It may be our very ability to imagine the other's all-too-human humiliation and pain that inspires the cruelty in the first place. A kind of shadow empathy.

Paul Bloom writes:

There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality... The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

I would argue that our response to art comes from that same optimistic, and perhaps overly simplistic, place. We deify those who bring great art to us; we learn the dark stories behind them; and we have trouble reconciling the two.

Personally, I never sought out recordings of James Levine. I felt like I knew too much. But if a recording of his came on the radio, I would listen. I could even appreciate what made it good. Now, I'd turn it off. Because I'm tired. 

It takes critical mass for people to adjust what they view as acceptable. Enough momentum must be behind doubt for progress to be made. That's why I think the cognitive dissonance is important to sit with, even if it feels like it's taking a fantasy away from us. When a fantasy is lost, wisdom is born. The truth -- the beauty, even -- lives in this birth of understanding.

We aren't wrong to think of great art as reflecting truths of the human condition. Where we may err is in divorcing the spiritual euphoria art imparts from its sometimes very flawed, very earth-bound origins. 

The best art is a mirror for the human condition. Sometimes, it doesn't reflect anything we want to see.