What did Peter Brook and Richard Taruskin have in common? Next to nothing and everything

Director Peter Brook and musicologist Richard Taruskin were transformative figures and stalwarts in their fields. In life they were too dissimilar – separated by age, temperament, and activities – to tempt us to associate them in any way. But her death, a day apart, in early July placed her obituaries and tributes in the same weekend cultural news cycle. Chance, always the illuminator, brought them together.

On the surface, they occupied opposite ends of the intellectual and philosophical spectrum. You seemed like a quiet, reserved, articulate, thoughtful force of nature; the other as a boisterous, whiny, restless, and sometimes thoughtless and mean force of nature. One was a tidy, meticulous minimalist with empty space; the other, an insatiable maximalist who has something (much) to say about everything and is always ready with a cutting wit.

At least that was the public image that everyone cultivated. Brook was far better known to the general public, particularly for his Broadway hits and films. In his old age he earned a reputation as the wise, mystical elder of the theater. For an academic whose major was historical musicology, Taruskin attracted considerable attention as a public intellectual, publishing extensively in the New York Times, the New Republic, and elsewhere. He too was a wise man in his later years, if lively, an eminence grise who was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 2017, the musicologist’s closest equivalent to a Nobel Prize. They held court in different kingdoms and were products of their different generations. Brook died at 97, Taruskin at 77.

The great irony about Brook and Taruskin, and one thing that deeply binds them together, is that while neither was quite what they appeared to be on the surface, each was obsessed with the need to dig beneath surfaces. Each was an exceptional uncoverer: in Taruskin’s case, a composer like Stravinsky; in Brooks’ case, an opera character like Don Giovanni. They were always concerned with the big picture, art as a process through which we can better understand ourselves and society. Taruskin revolutionized musicology by placing all music in a social context. Brook felt the same need for theater.

Taruskin kept claiming with the strong certainty of an academic that he had found answers. Brook loved to declare that because there are no answers, he has no answers. Brook’s endorsement, of course, was the same as Taruskin’s, but in the garb of a mystic.

Both were exceptional showmen with similar roots and cosmopolitan backgrounds. Brook grew up in London as the son of Russian-Jewish emigrants. Taruskin grew up in New York, the grandson of similar émigrés. “Russian” is how many emigrants of the time identified, regardless of where they came from in the Eastern European Russian Empire.

Russia played a crucial role in both developing worldviews. Although Taruskin was a notable scholar of early music, he also specialized in Russian music and wrote the most impressive Stravinsky study to date. Part of Brooks’ family stayed in Russia. His cousin, Valentin Pluchek, worked in Moscow with the famous Russian dissident director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was an influence on Brook. Brook hasn’t shown much Russian theater, but his 1988 production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was always the one to beat for me.

In addition, music played an important role in her early upbringing. Both performed in college. In Brooks’ case, it was theater direction at Oxford University. Taruskin performed as a violist and choirmaster, specializing in early music while studying at Columbia University.

Richard Taruskin in 2014.

Richard Taruskin in 2014.

(Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Taruskin and Brook went about their business in their own unique ways, each at his own time. But the big questions they asked were often the same. Brook was merely the yin and Taruskin the yang of a shared cosmology.

In my own experience, I’ve never met a pair of art world tricksters who were so outrageous, so angry, and so awesome at the same time. Both Brook and Taruskin made me very uncomfortable with their intimidating attitudes. Both drove me to the wall with their absurd egos. Still, both struck me with their brilliance and, to my surprise, for two larger-than-life theatrical characters whom I initially distrusted, their humanity.

Distrust does not go far enough. At first I despised each of them. Brooks’ unsuccessful attempts in the 1950s to get the operatic world to take theater seriously were ahead of my time. But seeing his 1967 film Marat/Sade and his 1970 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream on stage – two of Brooks’ most famous and influential productions – was enough to make me vote against Brook. At a time when my strictly avant-garde aesthetic was shaped by the likes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, Andy Warhol, Fluxus, the Living Theater and the like, the brutal “Marat/Sade” (the Cunningham was “disgusting) and the Circus “Dream” felt like a cheap and manipulative parade experiment to the masses and mainstream media.

When Brooks’ eight-hour Mahabharata came to the Los Angeles Festival in 1987, I was horrified. Here was every pretentious avant-garde trick in the multicultural book for a staging of India’s great epic. It was performed on a Hollywood soundstage, with the audience in bleachers. The fourth wall was omitted. The music sounded pseudo-Indian. The spirituality was boiled down to soundbites.

And yet it was captivating theatre. The brilliant international cast, which at first seemed contrived, eventually provided a kaleidoscopic perspective. The epic contained the people of the world, and in the eight hours one got to know them. It became her story.

I went back twice. I saw it again when it traveled to BAM, where it wasn’t as readily received as it was in LA. Interviewed Brook who figured me out in about two seconds and then told me everything he wanted to know that I wanted to hear. His Cheshire cat grin was disarming.

I was hooked and followed Brook closely over the next 35 years as he pared down theatrical excesses to get down to the nitty gritty. Whenever I met him he was very nice but I always felt like he was turning me on. I couldn’t separate the man from the performer.

Finally able to stage operas on his own extravagant terms on an almost empty stage, with little more than superb acting and singing developed over a year of rehearsals and performances, he brought a revealing ‘Don Giovanni’ to the Aix Festival in 1998 on the stage. Rather than expose the Don for the sexual predator that he was, and as is imperative in modern productions of Mozart’s operas, Brook forced us to consider why we continue to enjoy one of the most performed, acclaimed, and uncomfortable operas in the world.

Brooks Don lives for the moment. His impulses are amoral rather than immoral. Brook goes beyond good and evil in his Don Giovanni to find out what drives us. If we can’t understand that, as Mozart’s music does (and Brook took the time to consider the reason for each note in the score), we’re missing real goodness. Otherwise, we do what we think is good, but in bad faith. Brook doesn’t present us with answers, only recognition.

As Brook got older, his productions became more streamlined. “A Magic Flute” was a grandiose compression of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. One of his last works, Battlefield, was an epilogue to Mahabharata, not the epic but the life force it conveyed to us as a message.

Brook claimed that he would go into a production with no point of view and would be guided by extensive rehearsals and reflection. Taruskin, on the other hand, was able to be guided from the start by a point of view that I discovered firsthand. This impulse of his was evident when I wrote after 9/11 that John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer must be heard and not banned; At the time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled performances of the opera’s choruses, which were sung by Israelis and Palestinians and were deemed too raw after the terrorist attacks. Just as Brook showed us what drives Krieger in the Mahabharata, Adams controversially looked at the mindset of Palestinian terrorists in the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship and murder of a Jewish-American passenger.

However, Taruskin believed art must have a moral purpose. Otherwise it could become dangerous like “Klinghoffer” and he then misrepresented what I wrote in an article for the New York Times. I sent a letter to the editor, which irritated Taruskin. He emailed to say he couldn’t see what I was complaining about. It didn’t matter if he misrepresented me because he wrote, “You know I’m right.”

Four years later, Taruskin published his magnum opus (as large as the Mahabharata), the five-volume Oxford History of Western Music. I rushed to write something about it, having only had time to skim the 4,000+ pages. But there were already complaints about Taruskin’s excessive editing, about his distinct likes and dislikes, about what he left out, and I wanted to put Taruskin back on track. I thought that the “Ox” is not only a phenomenal music story, bigger and more valuable than any other, but also a joy to read. It was – and still is – exactly what we need.

I got an email from Taruskin saying he couldn’t believe I was writing this considering what happened between us. I replied that it wasn’t about him, it was about his book. The grudge was over and I often saw him at concerts and conferences and enjoyed his company. Despite this, he continued to needle me for “Klinghoffer” and continued to misspell my name in articles and not correct it when republished in his books. This was Taruskin, and his vision was too vast to concern himself with all the details.

Brook and Taruskin have had their critics all along, and both seem to have lost some of their relevance recently. Brook had long been criticized for cultural appropriation in his works, particularly with “Mahabharata”. Taruskin, who made enemies as easily as he made friends and followers, had been criticized for his sheer aggression. Both men wrote defensive, points-settling final books — “Playing by Ear” and “Cursed Questions,” respectively. Try to get your hands on out of print DVDs of Brooks’ Mahabharata or Don Giovanni without breaking the bank. Regardless, they will reappear. Both men left legacies too big and important to get rid of.

Despite everything, it was real seekers who asked the biggest questions about art, culture and society and will certainly withstand cultural whims. Whether they offered answers or non-answers didn’t matter, because one question always led to the next. In asking, on the spiritual journey, they found humanity in the tradition of art and science, most importantly, where the rest of us so often miss.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-26/appreciation-peter-brook-and-richard-taruskin What did Peter Brook and Richard Taruskin have in common? Next to nothing and everything

Sarah Ridley

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