In recounting the story of the first time he met famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz, columnist William F. Buckley described him as “the most celebrated musician alive.” In the mid 1980s, during the Cold War, this may well have been the case.
Horowitz, who was born in Kiev in 1903 and fled the Soviet Union at age 22, was about to make a triumphant return to Moscow to play a concert. It made headlines all around the world, and afterward Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Reading that description of Horowitz last week made me wonder what constitutes being a celebrated musician today. Could there be a “most” now?
Back in the last century there were many contenders for such a title. One thinks of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini in the 1920s and ’30s (and with whom Horowitz played several times); or perhaps cellist Pablo Casals, at least when he was performing at the White House, which he did first for Theodore Roosevelt and then, decades later, for John Kennedy.
Leonard Bernstein probably warranted the label at some point from the middle of the century into the 1970s. These were the years of his famous affiliation with the New York Philharmonic — and especially when he was on CBS television each week hosting his famed Young People’s Concerts. A good case could have been made for famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti being the most celebrated. These days perhaps it’s violinist Joshua Bell.
A couple of weeks ago the New York Times reported the story of Valentina Lisitsa, a 43-year-old Ukrainian pianist who has “resurrected a completely stalled career through YouTube.” Now, with more than 62 million views of her practicing, performing and what not, along with 105,000 people who have subscribed to her YouTube channel, she’s turned herself into a hot commodity.
I spent some time on YouTube the other day watching and listening to her performances. Confronted by a seemingly endless list of clips, I curiously found myself looking at the number of views each posting had garnered almost as much as the titles to figure out what I wanted to listen to.
There were over 68,000 hits for her playing a Scriabin sonata; 226,000 for her performing a Mozart concerto with an orchestra in Germany; and 44,000 for just one of several performances of the famous 18th part of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.”
In another clip she talks about what it’s like to play that wonderful piece with an orchestra. (Have coffee to sip, she counsels, unless you just want to sit there and count measures and minutes as the orchestra plays.) There’s much more I didn’t get the chance to examine.
So is she the most celebrated musician in the world? Actually it probably no longer makes sense to think in those terms. Music is very broad, as is art in general, and few of even the most accomplished artists can make an airtight case being the “most celebrated.” Our culture has become so specialized and differentiated that I suspect it depends largely on the circles in which you run as to your assessment of who it would be. You will have noticed, for example, that we’ve not even mentioned pop music.
Quality can often fly under the radar of contemporary culture, as spectacle and splash are a lot easier to see. That having been said, spectacle doesn’t always mean lack of quality. Horowitz’s concert in Moscow was no doubt a spectacle, but his playing was flawless. But glitz and celebrity can easily be mistaken for art. It takes practiced discernment to differentiate them.
David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.