July 31, 2011

Classical chops, rock vibe: 2Cellos shows what else can happen

A few days ago, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, two high-octane Croatian musicians known as 2Cellos, played at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I wish I’d been in town to see them live, because their viral YouTube videos display all the qualities I’ve been saying classical music needs more of: rawness, energy, impoliteness, spontaneity, ego. If you haven’t watched them in action, you’re missing something.

The two young cellists are both classically trained: both attended royal conservatories in the UK and one of them (Hauser) was a student of the late cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich. Both were doing well on the competition circuit and were playing internationally at all the right venues. 

Apparently they avoided the indoctrination that usually comes with that kind of training — the traditional ideals that still shape the careers of many classical prodigies. They’re working outside of the culture of classical music, making other uses of their prodigious talent and rigorous training. For one thing, they’re playing rock, or at least that’s what they got famous for, almost overnight on YouTube: propulsive, virtuosic renditions Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

But it’s not just what they play, it’s how: fiercely, almost animalistically, twisting with energy, stamping their feet, and beating up their instruments. Their bows literally shred during the performance. In other words, they embody the subversive energy of rock and roll, the Dionysian upwelling that felt, to the establishment in rock’s early days, so aggressive and sexual and threatening.

The response they’ve been getting is more enthusiastic and more genuinely human than any classical audience reaction I’ve seen. No wonder Elton John asked them to tour with him this summer and fall (see photo with Sir Elton).

The classical realm (if that’s where we are) hasn’t seen anything like it since Nicolo Paganini, who was something like the Eddie Van Halen of his day. Classical music people often bring up Paganini to show that classical music can have the rabid crowds and almost-destabilizing force of popular music. But that begs the question of what has happened in the 170 years between Paganini and, say, Lang Lang, who’s a major star by classical standards but about as subversive as a Harry Potter sequel.

Sulic and Hauser are answering that question by example. They’re also demonstrating that conservatory training can pay off in ways that look very different from the traditional picture of success. Not long ago they might have been considered apostates, but given the conversation that’s going on at arts colleges (at least in the US) about creativity, innovation, and the changing role of musicians and artists in society, I’ll bet those two handsome cellists become poster children for the new era.

What do you think? Is it classical? Does it matter? And what (if anything) does it mean for classical music’s relationship to the broader culture?



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