Tuesday, 27 Feb 2024

Opinion | Classical Crescendo

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By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

WASHINGTON — The orgasm heard around the world was reported by Magnus Fiennes, a composer and music producer who is the brother of Ralph Fiennes. After going to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April, he tweeted about a woman sitting near him at Walt Disney Concert Hall who had a “loud and full body orgasm” during the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

Some in the audience tweeted back, wondering if the moaning was due to a medical condition. But the woman, who stayed with her smiling partner for the whole concert, has not come forward to clear it up.

Whatever happened, the scream is a metaphor. As we discuss which musical genres are expiring — Is rock ’n’ roll dead, as Jann Wenner told me? Is jazz fading away? — it seems that classical music is getting hotter.

Albert Imperato, a New York music promoter, says the idea is breaking through that classical music is not supposed to be safe and relaxing. It’s supposed to tingle.

“Let’s not forget that the word ‘climax’ is a common musical term,” the soprano Renée Fleming told me. “It has to do with musical tension and its release.” She said Rachmaninoff and Liszt “had it down” when it comes to sexy pieces.

To celebrate the scream, Norman Lebrecht, a British music journalist, ran “The 10 Best Orgasm Symphonies” in his blog, Slipped Disc.

Elim Chan, the 36-year-old conductor with the baton that night, told me she watched the woman in her peripheral vision until she “calmed down.” She said she likes when audience members audibly react — “I don’t want to be a piece of museum art.” We recalled how “Fantasia” and Bugs Bunny excited us as children, with their flights of classical music.

After the dark years of Covid and everyone at home streaming, she said, people are coming out to concerts to “feel something” that will exist only in that time — “and if you miss it, you miss it.”

The scream reminded me of the golden era in Hollywood, when moguls put their biggest stars — Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman — into passionate tales about classical musicians. There has been a revival of that recently, with Cate Blanchett in “Tár,” Kelvin Harrison Jr. in “Chevalier” and the upcoming Netflix movie “Maestro,” with Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.

Several recent surveys have clocked a rise in the popularity of classical music in the last couple of years. In America and England, the genre flourished during the pandemic, drawing more women and younger listeners, and it’s soaring among content creators on social media.

“Maybe that old orchestral and operatic music now sounds fresh to ears raised on electronic sounds,” the music critic Ted Gioia mused on his Substack, or “maybe young people view getting dressed up for a night at the opera hall as a kind of cosplay event.”

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, agreed. “The average age of our audience used to be in the 60s; now it’s in the 40s,” he told me.

He said that new operas by living composers — Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Champion” and Kevin Puts’s “The Hours” — are big draws. Gelb said that “Champion,” based on the life of Emile Griffith, a bisexual boxer, is the first time the Met has featured two men kissing or drag queens.

New York is the epicenter of the electricity. Cue Dudamania. Gustavo Dudamel, the 42-year-old curly-haired conductor who looks for “blood” in the music, is moving from Los Angeles to take over the New York Philharmonic in 2026. He promised to “keep that wild, wild animal Gustavo,” giving audiences a preview this weekend at David Geffen Hall, conducting Mahler’s Ninth.

At the Met, the 48-year-old conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a bolt of lightning with bleached-blond hair and a diamond earring. In elaborate costumes inspired by whatever opera he is conducting, he shakes off classical music’s conservative air.

Keri-Lynn Wilson, the six-foot glamazon who conducts in black Armani pantsuits with her ponytail swinging — and who is part of a classical music power couple with her husband, Peter Gelb — sparkled in her debut at the Met last fall with Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”

“I actually conducted an orgasm in it,” she said about the climactic sex scene. “Shostakovich achieved it through the sequencing of a relentlessly building and sliding trombone lick in unison with the entire orchestra in a pulsating crescendo.” She said Stalin banned the work and Shostakovich narrowly avoided the gulag.

New York is also home to Yuja Wang, the 36-year-old pianist who wears high-fashion miniskirts and stilettos for her bravura performances of Rachmaninoff.

Nézet-Séguin told me he thinks we are “beginning another golden age for our art form.”

“Without accusing anyone,” he said, he believes “institutions and maybe artists forgot some aspects of our art form” and “maybe the connection with the audience was just not enough of a priority, in my opinion.”

He said that in rehearsals, he always tells the orchestra to explore the love. “‘Love every note. Love more your eighth notes. Please love this harmony more.’ It’s very connected to classical music being sexy.”

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