Classical music has been reeling from a series of slow-moving crises around its relevance in society at large. I have been writing about this for a while now (most recently in a paper at the MLA that explored artistic labor as defined by Sasha Cooke’s pandemic album how do I find you), but this month, I’ve been to a series of concerts that are grappling with the problem of relevance in new ways.
On February 26, in the exquisite chamber music room of The Phillips Collection, I heard double bassist Xavier Foley play a program of his own work and Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor (transcribed for the bass). He wrote some of the works on the program during the pandemic; one, Lament, responds to the loss of his mentor and teacher in 2014, and others explore difficult life changes or other forms of loss; all seem to focus on processing emotion and fostering acceptance in the present.
Each of Foley’s own works hold meaningful intent but emerge as free from any listening barriers as possible. The sound of pieces like Lost Child, which he opened the program with, clearly and beautifully echo Edgar Meyer (with whom he worked while pursuing his BA at the Curtis Institute), whose simple yet serious sound I know best from Appalachian Journey. But much of Foley’s work leans further into popular music genres as if to avoid risking anyone feeling anything beyond comfort in a new music environment. The most obvious example on the program was Upright Metal, which aimed to recreate heavy metal on the double bass. Certainly, the homage was successful and delightful in the way that a familiar sound emanating from something unfamiliar always strikes a quick chord of wonder, but soon I wondered what will become of it a century from now. What will make us turn to a double bass cover of heavy metal if we can just listen to heavy metal?
Foley’s interpretation of Bach, however, was a lasting moment of awe and artistry. The timbre that he draws from his instrument is sweet, round, and delicate. The low growling range inherent to the bass emerged as if an underground deity were casting axioms upward to illuminate our human plight. It was technically stunning and emotionally transfixing. If there was any doubt that Foley is a serious player in the Classical music realm, this Bach was irrefutable evidence. Crowd-pleasing tunes buried the profound lede.
Several weeks prior, I heard Lang Lang do the opposite at the Kennedy Center. In a 100-minute, no-intermission program, he performed a brief Schumann C major Arabeske followed by the complete Bach Goldberg Variations—that’s all 30 variations and an aria to open and close. A pianist known for flash and bravado, he hasn’t often demonstrated the finesse underpinning this particular Baroque paragon and certainly didn’t prove otherwise in this performance. The fact that he played to a sold-out theatre with a program like this at all showed artistic flex, a draw on his star reputation to get away with a complex Classical program during which many audience members fell asleep.
With one artist burying the high-brow and the other boasting it, their chosen encores were notable. Lang Lang came out with an arrangement of “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, followed by a favorite from Disney’s Mulan. Foley responded to his standing ovation with the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. I couldn’t help but think one was placating and winning back an audience; the other was offering a parting gift of virtuosity and reflection. Both performed a balancing act of mundane and masterpiece that are becoming increasingly common in our concert halls. If this is a concession we’re making to keep audiences showing up to Classical music concerts, then hopefully the balance remains.