By Mic Holwin
Pianist Michael Boriskin sees his mission as one to reunite the fenced-off classical and contemporary classical neighborhoods of music on the outskirts of town and then integrate them both into the town proper. It sounds more like the goal of a city planner than a performer, but Boriskin is more than just a purveyor of beautiful music. Boriskin's agenda of playing new music smack dab alongside revered masterworks by the three Bs is his way to take down those fences separating classical and contemporary classical music from the rest of society.
"This is one of the biggest problems facing classical music today: that unlike almost anything in any walk of life, new creativity has been largely severed and ghettoized from mainstream activity," New York native Boriskin says. "I think that's one of the most unhealthy things imaginable. It's largely responsible for the doldrums that the classical music world finds itself in."
Boriskin, who hosts a National Public Radio series on the Performance Today program called "Centuryview" and who has been recently named artistic director of The Copland Heritage Association, is easily able to step back through history and put things in perspective. "In Mozart's time, even classical music audiences were generally only exposed to the newest or the most recent work," he explains. "The reason that Mozart had to write all of those piano concertos for his own subscription concerts in Vienna was that once he played something, people didn't want to hear it again. And that is analogous to pop music, then and now, especially now. If Michael Jackson doesn't come up with new material for every tour he does, then people are going to say that he's written-out and he's a has-been."
He advances a century. "In the early 1800s, when The Academy of Ancient Music formed in England, its mission was to play 'ancient' music, which was defined as music that was older than 25 years. You simply didn't have a forum to be able to hear old works. And that was the other extreme of what we have now, where in most institutions it's an exception to hear a large body of more recent work." Indeed, most of our concert halls could be considered Academies of Extremely Ancient Music. Boriskin attributes the roots of our new music aversion to the 19th-century rise of the middle class, which created a less-specialized audience. Their taste for older music was further encouraged by 20th-century technological advances like the phonograph and radio.
"People could, with just the flick of a switch, hear music in the comfort of their own home, where in the past the only way they could have heard music in their own home is if they actually picked up an instrument and played it," says Boriskin. "So you have this increasingly accessible music coupled with the decline of 'participatory amateurism,' where people played instruments for their own amusement."
Once a societal stimulator, classical music has become soothing wallpaper. Boriskin cites the music of Chopin, used now as backdrop for romantic evenings, as example. "A lot of Chopin's music is profoundly disturbing and deeply unsettling, not to mention unbelievably audacious and bold. But it has become so familiar to us that all we get out of it anymore are euphonious, mellifluous sounds. We've lost the sense of revolution that so many of these great masters brought to their music."
Boriskin, who made his solo recital debut on the Lincoln Center Great Performers Series last year, nonetheless has a great respect and love for 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces, which he calls "the backbone of our repertoire." But, he says, "if all we're doing is juggling around the same body of works, dressing it up in new packaging by sticking titles on the programs, and interspersing here and there a new piece just for the heck of it, I don't think that that is going to address the issue that we are stuck in this recycling mode."
Half of what Boriskin plays is "recycled" works, for good reason. The pianist believes that, while useful in alerting people to the existence of contemporary music, playing concerts of only new music fosters separatism and winds up creating a "new music ghetto."
"I've found it personally much more effective in spreading new music around to combine newer works, or even older unfamiliar work, with the standard repertory staples. It enables you to hear new works in an established context. And by the same token, it enables you to hear old works in a different way. If you play the Elliot Carter piano sonata and then you follow it with a work of Brahms or Beethoven, you may make connections that you might not otherwise have thought about if you were listening to these works in an all-Brahms or all-Beethoven or all-old program."
"You want to be able to reassure and disturb at the same time," Boriskin says. "Realizing what is radical about the old works that we love while becoming aware of what's traditional about new works. You want to approach an old work with the excitement of something that you just took delivery of yesterday, while you want to lavish the same kind of care on a brand new work that you would on a big sonata by Schumann."
And in doing so, Boriskin hopes, get the neighbors talking again.
Michael Boriskin gives the New York premiere of George Perle's Piano Concerto No. 1 at ACO's September 27 concert, with Paul Lustig Dunkel conducting.
Michael Boriskin Discography: Selected 20th-Century American Works for Piano & Orchestra