Wednesday, January 21, 2004


The irrepressible Benjamin Zander was on the airwaves again this morning, promoting his new CD of Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony, and promoting the performance of the First Symphony by the Philharmonia at London's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 25 January 2004. At 6pm, an hour-and-a-half before the concert begins, Zander will give a talk about the work. This has been his custom over many years, and indeed the CD contains a bonus disc of his peroration too.

Zander, a conductor who also earns a living as a motivational teacher, is a great believer in the possibility of peresuading people to engage with music through encouragement, context and explanation. In the continuing debate over whether our greatest abstract art form 'speaks for itself' or whether it needs advocacy, he is very much the advocate.

Zander argues that the regulative experiences of Western culture have increasingly distanced people from the demands of lengthy, complex music. His aim is to 'bridge the fear' and to seek to offer an imaginative route into a confusing sound-world through the medium of language and (particularly) metaphor. He says that everyone -- and he means everyone -- can draw inspiration from a Mahler symphony with the right guidance.

The argument seems to assume the normativity of a certain kind of tonality, of course. And the universality of the Western art-music tradition. There's plenty of room for argument about those.... but it is hard to deny Zander's enthusiasm, or the idea that explanation and encouragement (done without patronising or presuming) can indeed enhance people's capacity to receive music.

I suppose I ought to test him out myself, since, though I appreciate Mahler's art, I can hardly be said to find him inspiring. Small doses, perhaps -- a contradiction in terms, I know! -- but I can sometimes find Mahlerian mannerisms ponderous and draining. Pity I have other engagements on Sunday...

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