Director Peter Brook and musicologist Richard Taruskin were transformative figures and essentials in their fields. When they were alive, they were too different – separated by age, temperament, and activities – for us to connect them in any way. Yet their deaths within a day of each other in early July placed their obituaries and appreciations on the same weekend cultural news cycle. Chance, always illuminating, brought them together.
On the surface, they occupied opposite ends of the intellectual and philosophical spectrums. One came across as a calm, reserved, eloquent, and reflective force of nature; the other as a loud, quarrelsome, disruptive, and sometimes thoughtless and spiteful force of nature. One was a tidy, cautious, empty minimalist; the other, a voracious maximalist, who has (a lot) to say about everything and is always ready with a sharp repartee.
It was, anyway, the public image that everyone cultivated. Brook was much better known to the general public, especially for his Broadway hits and films. In his old age, he gained a reputation as an ancient sage and theatrical mystic. For an academic whose subject was historical musicology, Taruskin caused a sensation as a public intellectual who published numerous articles in The New York Times, The New Republic and elsewhere. He too was wise, if fiery, in his later years, an éminence grise who in 2017 received the Kyoto Prize, the closest a musicologist can get to a Nobel. They held court in different kingdoms and were the products of their different generations. Brook died at 97, Taruskin at 77.
The great irony about Brook and Taruskin, and one thing that unites them deeply, is that while neither was quite what they seemed on the surface, each was possessed by the urge to dig. under the surfaces. Each was an extraordinary revealer: in the case of Taruskin, a composer like Stravinsky; in Brook’s case, an opera character like Don Giovanni. It was always the big picture they were looking for, art being a process by which we could better understand ourselves and society. Taruskin revolutionized musicology by placing all music in a social context. Brook felt the same need for theatre.
Taruskin has claimed time and time again, with the powerful endorsement of an academic, that he has found answers. Brook liked to rant that he had no answers, because there are no answers. Brook’s bail, of course, was the same as Taruskin’s but in mystical clothing.
In this, both were exceptional showmen who came from similar roots and cosmopolitan backgrounds. Brook grew up in London, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants. Taruskin grew up in New York, the grandson of similar emigrants. “Russian” is the number of identified emigrants of the time, regardless of their origin in the Russian Empire in Eastern Europe.
Russia has played a crucial role in both visions of the developing world. Although Taruskin was an eminent scholar of early music, he also specialized in Russian music and wrote Stravinsky’s most impressive study to date. Part of Brook’s family remained in Russia. His cousin, Valentin Pluchek, worked in Moscow with the famous Russian dissident director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was an influence on Brook. Brook didn’t put on much Russian theater, but his 1988 production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was always the one for me to beat.
In addition, music played an important role in their first two upbringings. Both entered performance in middle school. In Brook’s case, at Oxford University, it was about directing theatre. Taruskin performed as a violist and choirmaster specializing in early music while studying at Columbia University.
Taruskin and Brook went about their business in their particular, particular way, each at their own pace. But the big questions they asked were often the same. Brook was just the yin and Taruskin the yang of a common cosmology.
In my own experience, I’ve never come across a pair of art world con artists so outrageous, maddening, and gorgeous at the same time. Brook and Taruskin both made me very uncomfortable with their intimidating posture. Both drove me up the wall with their absurd egos. Even so, both left me in awe of their brilliance and, to my surprise with two larger-than-life theatrical characters I initially distrusted, their humanity.
Mistrust does not go far enough. I despised all of them at first. Brook’s failed attempts in the 1950s to get the opera world to take theater seriously predate my time. But seeing his 1967 film “Marat/Sade” and his 1970 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on stage – two of Brook’s most famous and influential productions – was enough to make me anti-Brook. At a time when my rigid avant-garde aesthetic was shaped by the likes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, Andy Warhol, Fluxus, the Living Theater and others, the brutal “Marat/Sade” (which Cunningham called ” disgusting”) and the circus “Dream” looked like cheap and manipulative parade experimentalism to the masses and mainstream media.
When Brook’s eight-hour “Mahabharata” arrived at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 1987, I was appalled. There was all the pretentious avant-garde tricks of the multicultural book for a staging of the great epic of India. It was given on a Hollywood soundstage, with the audience in the bleachers. The fourth wall has been removed. The music sounded pseudo-Indian. Spirituality boiled down to sound bites.
And yet, it was captivating theatre. The brilliant cast from around the world, which seemed contrived at first, eventually provided a kaleidoscopic perspective. The epic contained the people of the world, and over the eight hours you got to know them. It became their story.
I went back twice. I saw him again when he went to BAM, where he was not as well received as in LA. Interviewed Brook, who understood me in about two seconds and then told me everything he knew I wanted to hear. His Cheshire Cat smile was disarming.
I was hooked and followed Brook closely over the next 35 years as he cut back on theatrical excess to get to the essence. Every time I met him he was very nice, but I always felt like he was playing me. I couldn’t separate the man from the performer.
When he was finally able to stage the opera in his own extravagant terms on a nearly empty stage, with little more than excellent acting and singing developed over a year of rehearsals and performances, he staged a revealing “Don Giovanni” at the Festival d’Aix in 1998. Rather than exposing the Don as the sexual predator he was, and as is de rigueur in modern productions of Mozart’s opera , Brook forced us to consider the reasons why we continue to enjoy one of the most performed, famous and disconcerting operas in the world.
Brook’s Don lives for now. His impulses are amoral rather than immoral. Brook goes beyond good and evil in his “Don Giovanni” to understand what drives us. Unless we can understand that, as Mozart’s music does (and Brook took the time to ponder the reason for every note in the score), true goodness will elude us. Otherwise, we do what we think is right but in bad faith. Brook does not present us with answers, just recognition.
The older Brook got, the leaner his productions became. “A Magic Flute” was a sublime condensed version of “The Magic Flute” by Mozart. One of her last works, ‘Battlefield’, was an epilogue to ‘Mahabharata’, not the epic but the life force that she sent as a message to us.
Brook claimed he would go into a production without a point of view, allowing extensive rehearsal and thought to guide him. Taruskin could, on the other hand, be guided by a point of view from the start, which I discovered firsthand. This impulse on his part became evident when, in the aftermath of 9/11, I wrote that John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” should be heard, not banned; at the time, the Boston Symphony canceled performances of the opera’s choruses, sung by Israelis and Palestinians, deemed too raw after the terrorist attacks. Just as Brook showed us what drove warriors into the “Mahabharata,” Adams controversially considered the mindset of Palestinian terrorists during the 1985 cruise ship hijacking and murder of a American Jewish passenger.
Taruskin, however, believed that art should have a moral purpose. Otherwise, he could be, like “Klinghoffer”, dangerous, and then he twisted what I wrote in a New York Times article. 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 that he misrepresented me, because, he wrote, “You know I’m right.”
Four years later, Taruskin published his magnum opus (a book as big as the “Mahabharata”), the five-volume “Oxford History of Western Music”. I rushed to write something about it after only having time to read its over 4,000 pages. But there were already complaints about Taruskin’s excessive editorialization, his strong likes and dislikes, what he left out, and I wanted to once again set the record straight with Taruskin . I thought the “Buffalo” was not only a phenomenal history of music, 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 would write this considering what had happened between us. I replied that it was not about him but about his book. The grudge was over, and I often saw him at concerts and conferences and enjoyed his company. He continued, nonetheless, to refer me to “Klinghoffer” and continued to misspell my name in articles and not correct when republishing in his books. It was Taruskin, and his vision was too vast to worry about all the details.
Brook and Taruskin have always had their detractors, and one could see that both have started to lose relevance lately. Brook had long been criticized for cultural appropriation in his works, particularly with “Mahabharata.” Taruskin, who made enemies as easily as friends and sidekicks, had been criticized for his sheer aggression. Both men wrote the last defensive and decisive books – respectively, “Playing by Ear” and “Cursed Questions”. Try to get your hands on out-of-print DVDs of Brook’s “Mahabharata” or “Don Giovanni” without breaking the bank. Either way, they’ll come back. Both men left behind legacies that were too big and too big to get rid of.
Flaws and all, they were real seekers who asked the biggest questions about art, culture and society, and who are sure to resist cultural vagaries. Whether they offered answers or non-answers didn’t matter, because one question always led to another. It is in the asking, in the spiritual journey, that they, in the tradition of art and scholarship that matters most, have found humanity where the rest of us so often miss it. .