Ertegun Scholars have been enjoying the Proms at the Ashmolean concert series over the past few months, if in a rather piecemeal fashion. In the May offering, the Orchestra of St John’s seized the springtime opportunity to perform a series of madrigals and folksongs, including English folksongs, Negro spirituals and Romanian dances.
The concert not only gave great aesthetic enjoyment, but also provided occasion for reflection on the nature of music and its cultural settings. The performance, we were told, aimed to call into question the artificial distinction between classical and popular music. (Each concert includes a brief talk by an Ashmolean curator, who chooses an item from the museum’s collection which picks up on some of the themes of the concert.) At first glance this seems like a noble aim: the very polished professional performance certainly captured the musical sophistication of the pieces performed.
And yet there was also a profound dissonance about the concert. We were presented with folk tunes which immediately conjure up images of common folk dancing around a Maypole. But instead of loutish revellers, we were presented with a vocal group in black-tie singing in the heart of the Ashmolean, a temple to high art and culture. With rare exception, they were pitch perfect and meticulously timed. The pieces, though beautiful in their own right, seemed to have been robbed of all the gritty rough edges one associates with them. The dissonance was particularly poignant during the Negro spirituals. These songs, which convey such deep hope precisely because they emerge from contexts of unimaginable suffering, were now transported into a very different context by their mode of presentation. Like a van Gogh mass-printed onto mouse pads, was this a form of commodification? Did such a high-culture setting and performance demonstrate that these pieces were equal to other sublime pieces of art, or did it imply that until they were performed in such a setting they couldn’t be fully appreciated? This tension and this dissonance made for a thoroughly enjoyable and provocative evening.