“I notice,” he said, “that people’s eyes tend to widen for a second, and then return to normal size, as I say the words ‘Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.’ For a brief moment, they think I’m writing a piece for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra!”
This is what I like to call “pushing snob buttons”: invoking an association with the great and famous in a way that automatically impresses other people. In the classical music world, it is the coin of the realm.
You played a concert last week? That’s nice. The concert was in New York? Even better. The concert was at Carnegie Hall? Wow – you must be something special! To a classical musician, the mere mention of Carnegie Hall pushes a snob button.
Is this fetishization of prestige a good thing? Probably not.
First, this way of thinking assumes that the musical world is a just place, where the cream naturally rises to the top. Anyone who doesn’t advance to the upper echelons of the profession clearly doesn’t deserve to. Also, it encourages laurel-resting – permitting the those at the top of the heap to grow complacent, while less glorified and more deserving musicians and institutions struggle in relative obscurity. It can entice famous older musicians to continue performing well past their artistic prime. Moreover, it skews the economics of the business, ensuring that the stars command enormous fees the while rank-and-file musicians – the backbone of classical music – must struggle as best they can.
For these reasons, it’s tempting to denounce the whole snob-button effect as superficial, pretentious and just plain unfair. But the phenomenon is perhaps more complex, and more defensible, than it appears to be on the surface. Arguably, the big names – Yo-Yo Ma, Valery Gergiev, the Metropolitan Opera, etc. – serve as vital “tent-poles,” supporting the entire structure of classical music. It’s not clear how classical music could flourish without some kind of star system, to ensure that the masses are duly impressed with the whole enterprise.
And of course it’s not just the classical music world that has snob buttons. Tell your film buff friends that you saw a famous movie star getting into a taxi at the airport and you’ll have their rapt, undivided attention.
These days, it seems we’re all prestige junkies. We should at least be aware of it.
© Colin Eatock 2013