Young classical musicians easy on the eyes and the ears

Gautier Capucon is flustered. An interviewer has just posed an inaudible question that embarrasses the world-class cellist. He laughs, revealing a broad, affable smile as he shakes his head, which in turn, ruffles thick clumps of his Gallic brown hair.

It is 2004, and Capucon is 23 years old. At this point, he still has boundaries.

“I will not answer thees,” he says, turning a faint pink. He wags his finger and teases, “Come on, behave! You forget you are a journalist.”

Seven years later, a video of this scene ranks high in a YouTube search for the musician. We never learn what secrets Capucon refused to reveal, but the content is irrelevant. That he refused to reveal something seems odd.

A digital search for Capucon, now 30, offers an array of options for the casual viewer. One can watch him perform Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia with his violinist brother Renaud at Royal Albert Hall in London. Or one can gawk at his physique as he plays his 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello in an undershirt in the supposed privacy of a dressing room. Those who prefer comedy to Dvorak can chuckle as he announces his favorite English profanity (in a melodic French accent) or his preferred method of death: “onstage with my cello . . . or in the arms of the woman I love,” says Capucon, who will perform at the Kennedy Center from Nov. 10 to 12.

Highbrow or lowbrow, everyone is pleased.

Because intoday’s open-source, over-sharing, follow-and-friend frenzy, elite classical musicians, like every other sector of performers, are nothing if not familiar.

YouTube celebrates its sixth anniversary this month, and its effects on established classical artists are still largely unquantifiable. Yet, young musicians like Capucon, violinist Charlie Siem and even once-controversial head-turner Lara St. John have seized virtual media not only to showcase their talents, but also to showcase themselves. Once respected for ethereal album covers and arresting performances taped for PBS, classical soloists are venturing into Rebecca Black’s viral video territory. They share the stage with talking animals. They compete with political campaign managers who light up in jest.

For Capucon, it doesn’t matter why the virtual public watches him. Is it because he seems sweet? Because he’s the Vincent Cassel of chamber music?

“I’m almost blushing now, but I don’t know,” he demurs. “I am who I am and what I am, and people feel that. You can’t hide behind anyone onstage. You just have to be yourself.”

To be oneself: the goal of a generation and now, its virtuosos.

That openness may lead a young, audience to his performances at the Kennedy Center where Leonard Slatkin will conduct him playing Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

Then again, it may not.

Either way, this young crop — ever dedicated to the classical repertoire — has embraced digital media to reveal that they too can be ordinary. They curse. They play Ping-Pong. They’ll perform “Flight of the Bumblebee” on an iPad, as pianist Lang Lang did, garnering 1.5 million hits. And while the glut of virtual content exists to tease and lure in an amateur audience, it doesn’t bother the gray heads paying for prime orchestra seating.

They don’t need to know it’s there.

Model musicians

Vogue couldn’t contain its giddiness. In September, the magazine published a profile on violinist-cum-fashion-model Charlie Siem, accompanied by a photo of the 25-year-old Brit clutching his borrowed 1735 Guarneri del Gesu d’Egville, a violin once owned by Yehudi Menuhin. The premise? He’s “handsome, almost to the point of absurdity,” wrote Adam Green. And he plays violin.

The sex appeal “shaking up the classical world” narrative has already been written about the likes of prodigy Joshua Bell or model-violinist David Garrett. Those entrenched in the classical world tire of it. But Vogue’s profile revealed that, to many outside the concert house, the idea of an “absurdly” handsome classical soloist is oxymoronic and still shocking, particularly when popular culture depicts youth orchestras as the only social rung on par with “Glee” nerds.

Despite the praise heaped upon him, Siem contends that virtuosos have always been attractive types, better for attracting attention to their music.

“When you think of great virtuosi like Franz Liszt or Paganini,” said Siem, citing the original heart throbs, “Their flamboyant appearance was a large part of their successes. Many of the great violinists like Jascha Heifetz were almost dandies in terms of their appearance.”

But Paganini didn’t have fans posting clips of Lady Gaga slobbering on his face as he performed Monti’s “Csardas” at a nightclub in Manhattan. Sure, those 19th-century studs drew crowds to live performances, and modern-day post-performance chats by Bell still draw throngs of young women. But do Siem and his contemporaries have the ability to push further outside the concert halls, past gatekeepers who equate classical music with bland old stuffiness?

Classical music “is becoming an all-encompassing experience, and that’s a positive thing,” said Siem. “You can now know the personalities, and you have to meet the audience halfway. In the past, people knew the music. Now, they might not, so you have to draw them in with something.”

And like Capucon, Siem doesn’t mind if he draws in an online audience with his Etonian looks. In almost an exact echo of Capucon, he maintains, “I look the way I do and present myself the way I present myself. There’s very little I can do about the way it’s received. I have to be true to myself.”

Violinist Lara St. John attracted considerable attention for her 1996 album “Bach Works for Violin Solo.” The album cover photo, in which St. John appeared naked from the waist up, spare the violin covering her chest, ignited both praise and scorn for breaking sexual barriers in the classical world. She was 24.

“I don’t know why this profession of ours seems to have a problem with anyone doing something different,” said St. John, now 40, who still records and tours internationally. “But digital media is helping performers. In the early ’90s, you’d have critics and newspapers and that was it. You no longer need an expensive video to get something out there.”

St. John is still remembered for the controversial album cover. But now, she revels in Facebook culture where she maintains a mostly public Facebook page that features photos of her posing with her pet iguana in matching, holiday-themed costumes. She doesn’t have a Facebook fan page. Her friends and fans view the same content.

“The openness is positive,” she said. “The whole performer on a pedestal all dressed up, behind glass — that approach doesn’t work anymore. I remember going into Tower Records in the ’90s, and to get into the classical section, you had to open this glass door. Even as a musician, I felt intimidated to go in. With digital, you bypass all that.”

“Digital media reflects a shift that musicians are more ready to reach out to audiences, it hasn’t necessarily created it,” said Nick Shave, contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. “It allows artists to break down this traditional stuffy view of classical music, and show they have everyday, varied lives. Twenty years ago, audiences couldn’t see that.”

Despite the benefits, some critics warn that digital media can cheapen an artist’s craft, particularly if it’s used badly.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking a serious artist seriously,” said Miles Hoffman, a violist and commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “If on the one hand, there’s a danger of stuffiness, on the other extreme, there’s a danger of pandering and dumbing-down the music, or just being silly. We all have to find the happy medium.”

Classical soloists also confess that new digital channels add another degree of pressure to their performances and their personal lives.

Yuja Wang, the 25-year-old Chinese pianist who recently sparked controversy for wearing (gasp!) short skirts onstage, views digital media as an inevitable extension of the performer, a force they can’t afford to ignore.

“Even if we don’t plan on using digital media, it happens automatically,” wrote Wang in an e-mail. “There are many videos of me on YouTube, and I didn’t post a single one. They have all been posted by the digital ‘community’ out there. That’s simply part of my generation.”

“You can’t get away with anything,“ echoed Siem. “Anyone can film you anywhere. It’s kind of a scary thing to know people have such complete freedom and access to you.”

Outside coming in?

Classical music, by its nature, is a conservative art. Dead composers still dominate and change is neither goal nor battle cry. It is logical then, that classical critics and artists alike would view this relatively new digital world as less than revolutionary. While virtual press releases and a YouTube Orchestra are becoming industry norms, classical music is still deeply wedded to live performances, and getting bodies in seats is the end goal. Has all this technology fundamentally changed the concert hall?

“It’s hard to say ‘this cause gives this effect,’” said Nigel Boon, director of programming at the Kennedy Center. “There’s no doubt that Lang Lang, for example, gets millions of hits online, but there’s no doubt that he sells concerts. If one is the result of the other, I’m certainly not going to say.”

Still, digital channels have not affected how Boon chooses artists.

“I don’t say, ‘Who’s really hot online today, must book them.’ Absolutely not,” he said.

Even artists seem uncertain how digital efforts have affected their careers.

“In the last year, I’ve definitely gotten people who don’t come from a classical background interested, but I’m not sure that’s because of YouTube,” Siem said. “I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed.”

So perhaps digital media isn’t a seismic shift for classical. It’s not like this technology replaced the harpsichord.

Cellist Gautier Capucon

performs at the Kennedy Center Nov. 10-12, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Tickets are $20-$85. For more info, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

 
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