- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

By Sheldon Morgenstern
Northeastern University Press, $26.95, 188 pages

Sheldon Morgenstern is the founding director of the 40-year-old Eastern Music Festival, an outstanding summer music program for young people in Greensboro, N.C., that draws students from all over the United States and abroad. Many practicing professional musicians got their start there. Mr. Morgenstern has also conducted symphony orchestras all over North America and in western and eastern Europe. The musicians he knows professionally and personally would fill a small phone book. He is a sensitive and intelligent musician and a concerned and dedicated music educator. On the face of it, his experience ought to enable him to write a book on the plight of classical music in today’s society. But think again.
In his preface Mr. Morgenstern states that he wrote “No Vivaldi in the Garage” (the curiously uncommunicative title has an unlikely source: a line from an episode of the old TV sitcom “Taxi”;) “to make the broader public aware of the precarious state of live classical music performance in Canada and the United States, to examine some of the reasons for its decline, and to offer some solutions.” This statement together with the subtitle of the book lead the reader to expect a serious, systematic discussion of a problem that is indeed of great concern to many people within the arts.
But what Mr. Morgenstern has given us is, purely and simply, his own personal memoir. And a self-congratulatory one, at that, giving us a running list of his superlative achievements and outstanding judgments. One cannot avoid asking oneself, “Who in the world is Sheldon Morgenstern that I should be interested in reading about his life in music?”
I’ll give the man his due: Based on what he reports, the Eastern Music Festival is a fine educational enterprise that I would enjoy visiting one summer. And judging from his comments on interpreting music, I’m quite sure I would appreciate an orchestral performance prepared and conducted by him. But, alas, I can’t say the same about his writing. Each chapter (some extremely brief, a couple being only three and a half pages long) consists for the most part of individual anecdotes loosely strung together. These are usually related to the ostensible topic of the chapter, but once in a while Mr. Morgenstern loses the thread of his thought, and a story meanders off the path without having made its point, or leads to an entirely unrelated matter or into a non-sequitur.
He praises George Zazofsky as one of the founding forces of the International Congress of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), a labor union responsive to the needs of classical musicians. But within a few sentences he is detailing the unfortunate excesses of the ICSOM and its lawyers, who “too often mislead the very musicians they are representing” and the tendency of the union to negotiate contracts superficially beneficial to musicians, but which set impossibly high financial demands on boards and communities leading eventually to fiscal disaster for the orchestra. The paragraph concludes by stating that “all professional performing classical musicians … owe a great debt to George Zazofsky”. Come again?
To be sure, there are a handful of entertaining anecdotes about famous musicians the author has known and worked with. Van Cliburn’s begging Mr. Morgenstern not to tell his mommy about the entrance he missed in a rehearsal, Leonard Rose buying an air conditioner with his own money for his dressing room at the Festival, the Guarneri Quartet getting into a cantankerous argument at an open rehearsal, Glenn Gould delivering an ex tempore lecture on the Viennese classical style on the phone.
Mr. Morgenstern, to his credit, seems always open to learning, even from non-musicians. He obtained special permission to attend varsity basketball practice at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill so he could watch famous and respected coach Dean Smith preparing his team for a game. From him Mr. Morgenstern learned much he could apply in rehearsing an orchestra for a concert: Showing enthusiasm, being as quick with praise as with criticism, letting several mistakes pass before stopping to make corrections “Dean Smith is the finest teacher I ever encountered in any discipline”.
But these tales, while pleasant, are basically conversational, with no deep revelations about the persons involved and only rarely with any profound insights into the nature of music or music-making. And some of the stories get personal and rude. At first I thought I perceived that when Mr. Morgenstern had something negative, but instructive to say about an individual, he left the person unnamed. But while he may practice such discretion about musicians associated with the Eastern Music Festival, he certainly doesn’t hold back with superstars he dislikes, such as Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, and Daniel Barenboim.
And, most disappointing, there is no core to his so-called thesis about the demise of classical music. What we have instead is a list of pet peeves: a misconceived and misdirected National Endowment for the Arts, inadequate arts education in the public schools, venal artist managers, egotistical superstars, short-sighted, corrupt, unartistic, and unimaginative boards of directors, bureaucratic community arts councils, even much modern music after Bela Bartok.
Of course Mr. Morgenstern may be right that a combination of such factors has contributed to the precarious state of classical music. Many readers will surely nod their heads in sad agreement with him that “our cultural soul has become endangered.” But Mr. Morgenstern does not develop any of these ideas into cogent and persuasive points. Instead he recommends the 1965 Rockefeller Panel report on the performing arts, which he asserts is as pertinent today as 37 years ago. It does seem clear and almost unarguable that the tremendous lapse in arts education is a major culprit in the devaluation of serious arts in our society. But Mr. Morgenstern overlooks other factors. Surely the massive commercial world of popular culture has got to be taken into consideration when investigating where we have drifted.
As for the solutions he promised, Mr. Morgenstern appears to believe it suffices to print at the end of his book a three-page letter of arts recommendations he wrote to Bill Clinton at the hopeful beginning of that president’s first term (and that elicited only a form letter response).
In fairness, perhaps it ought to be said in conclusion that if more private enterprises like the Eastern Music Festival were in operation, they would go a long way toward compensating for the pitiful lack of arts training and teaching in public education.
Imagine if every state, or better every constellation of counties, could support a summer residential arts program, with scholarship support for poorer students, resident artists mingling daily with the young people, talented and dedicated musicians leading student orchestras, professional players performing alongside students in chamber groups. Mr. Morgenstern may not be a strong systematic thinker and writer on art and society, but he most certainly has done his part to nurture young people in valuing music in their lives.

Rufus Hallmark is professor musicology at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City Universit
of New York.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide